Commonwealths will always hold a special place in Elliott’s heart

Peter Elliott of England on his way to victory in the 1,500 metres event at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand. (Picture: Mike Powell/Allsport)
Peter Elliott of England on his way to victory in the 1,500 metres event at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand. (Picture: Mike Powell/Allsport)
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The Commonwealth Games is an event that has never quite been able to secure a meaningful place in the affections of the British public.

The 20th edition which is unravelling on our screens amid wall-to-wall coverage is a bizarre mix of fevered track cycling and sedate lawn bowls, competed for by finely-honed products of national sports programmes and some chap from Mauritius who just happens to be decent at badminton.

Interest in the event is a little inflated, primarily owing to it being in Britain and because the euphoria generated at London 2012 was simply too good to only experience once, so the host broadcasters are trying to drum up the support and jingoism.

Four years ago when the Games were in Delhi, few people gave a hoot.

Halfway around the world in a country where first-time visitors are prey to a touch of gastroenteritis – no thanks, I’ll wait for London 2012.

For the sports themselves, there is no definite determination of where the Commonwealths rank.

Below the Olympics and world championships naturally, but are they superior to continental events or inferior? Do they rank alongside annual World Cup or World Series meets, above them or below them?

For one former Yorkshire athlete who, for the latter part of the Eighties was one of the finest middle-distance runners in the world, the Commonwealth Games meant an awful lot.

Rotherham’s Peter Elliott will forever be introduced as an Olympic silver medallist, for his achievement in the 1,500m at the Seoul Olympics of 1988.

Twelve months earlier, he had won a silver in the 800m at the world championships in Rome.

But the bronze medal he won in the 800m at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in 1986 and the gold he claimed in the 1,500m at the next gathering of Her Majesty’s empire of nations in Auckland four years later, provided neat bookends to a stellar period.

“My first Commonwealth Games should actually have been Brisbane in 1982,” recalls Elliott, who still works in athletics, as the deputy director of operations for the English Institute of Sport.

“I got the qualification time but never got selected. Even when Steve Ovett withdrew, I wasn’t called up.”

Having suffered again at the hands of the selectors for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles – a victim of the public’s and the sport’s affection for past champions like Steve Ovett – Elliott finally kick-started his major championships career at the Meadowbank Stadium in Edinburgh in the 800m.

“It was a race run in horrible weather and Steve Cram was just in incredible form,” says Elliott.

“At the time, the first two home in the Commonwealths would seal a place in the European Championships later in the summer.

“But I’m not that type of runner, I race to win, so I didn’t go for second and ended up third.

“I got the bronze but missed out on the Europeans.

“I should have looked at the weather and run more conservatively. It was a definite learning curve.

“But the funny thing about those Edinburgh Games was the journey home. Usually when you return from a major international event you come into an airport with the entire squad and the media’s there and the fans are there to welcome you home.

“I got off the train in Doncaster to an empty platform.”

Four years later, and Elliott could finally return to South Yorkshire as a champion.

“Auckland was special for me because it was the major Games where I finally got the gold medal,” he continues, when reflecting on an event that took place in January, 1990.

“I also ran a great time against a top quality field.

“I was probably the favourite going into the race and, to be fair, when I stood on the start line, I was convinced I would win.

“I’d won all the races in the lead-up to the Games and I did a secret 1,200m time trial in the weeks beforehand when I ran a time that just solidified my confidence.

“It was supposed to be secret, but I let my time out to (rival) John Walker who I knew would then go and tell everyone what it was. And he did, and I’m glad he did, because it showed everyone else the form I was in and the times I was capable of running.

“I was asked by Brendan Foster in the build-up to the race if there was anyone I feared and the only one was a runner who was a bit ungainly and he actually brought down John Walker in a crash that I managed to avoid.

“That’s one of those things that happens when you’re in the sort of purple patch I was in at the time. You avoid crashes like that, you have more awareness about where you’re running.

“It was great to finally be a champion.

“And the time I ran, 3min 33secs, is a damn good time for a championship final – if I do say so myself.”

If the Commonwealths hold a particular place in the affections of Elliott, where do they stand in the present day?

“The importance of the Commonwealths depends on the sport,” says the 51-year-old, who, while working to improve elite level sport in this country, also appreciates the need for development and greater interest at grass roots.

“Obviously, the Olympics is the main goal, followed by the worlds, and then between the Commonwealths and the Europeans, it depends on the standard of the field.

“In athletics, anything from 800m to marathon will have all the Kenyan runners in it, so that makes the Commonwealth competition the tougher field to succeed in. It’s the same with the sprints and the Jamaicans in the Commonwealths.

“Plus, at the end of the day, it’s a major championships, and your record in those is what you’re remembered for.

“And when you look at the likes of squash and netball – the Commonwealth Games is their Olympics because they’re not in the big one.

“The weather helps when it comes to a Commonwealth Games. Back in Edinburgh in ’86 it was raining and windy, like any typical race at the Meadowbank Stadium, and that obviously affects the atmosphere.

“In Manchester in 2002 the weather was glorious and it was a sell-out at all the stadiums, just as we’re seeing with Glasgow.

“People got behind the Games in Manchester, as they are doing in Glasgow and I think we’re still seeing part of the euphoria of London 2012 in action.

“Success breeds success and if you’re beaming superstars into people’s living rooms then it can have a real effect on the development of a sport.

“You only have to look at the Tour de France in Yorkshire. The number of cyclists you see on the road now... it really has captivated not just Yorkshire, but the whole country.”