Lack of athletes creating Games’ most awkward dilemma

Commonwealth Games officials have admitted work needs to be done to stop awkward moments like English cyclist Sophie Thornhill’s deserted medal ceremony from ever happening again.

Thornhill was the victim of an uncomfortable dilemma Games officials have been wrestling with when she took out the gold medal in the women’s blind and visually impaired sprint at the Anna Meares Velodrome.

The 22-year-old and pilot Helen Scott conquered Aussie Jessica Gallagher and pilot Madison Janssen in the final, winning the first two races in their best of three showdown.

The problem is Gallagher and Janssen were nowhere to be seen when the medal presentation ceremony was conducted on Thursday night.

Under Commonwealth Games Federation rules, the Aussie duo did not receive a silver medal for finishing second in the women’s blind and visually impaired sprint because just three teams signed up to compete.

The situation resulted in Thornhill and Scott standing on top of the podium with no other teams by their side as England’s national anthem was boomed through the venue’s sound system.

The scene is set to repeat on Saturday night in the women’s B&VI 1000m time trial final. The event also has just three registered pairings. Thornhill’s awkward moment on top of the podium is far from a one-off.

Aussie cyclist Brad Henderson won a bronze medal in the men’s blind and visually impaired 1000m time trial with pilot Tom Clarke on Thursday night in an event where just five teams entered the competition.

Swimmer Eleanor Robinson of England also had to endure an awkward moment during the presentation of her gold medal in the women’s S7 50m butterfly on Thursday when she was awarded her prize with nobody standing on her left side when, under Commonwealth Games Federation rules, the event did not have enough registered competitors to include a bronze medal.

There were only four competitors in the event.

Robinson hit the wall almost two seconds quicker than Canada’s Sarah Mehain (silver). Third-place finisher Tess Routliffe was not awarded a bronze medal.

Games officials on Friday admitted there is work to be done to strengthen the para sport competition in the Commonwealth Games.

Gold Coast 2018 committed more than two years ago to delivering the largest number of para sport events ever witnessed in the Commonwealth Games.

The number of gold medals on offer in para sport has increased from 22 at the Glasgow Games in 2014 to 36 in 2018 with an athletic field of more than 300 para athletes registered.

The aggressive expansion has come with its fair share of headaches.

A commitment to increasing the number of para events at the Commonwealth Games is the reason Thornhill was left to stand on the podium by herself during her gold medal presentation.

Officials admit more needs to be done to source para athletes heading into the 2022 Games in Birmingham.

Commonwealth Games Federation chief executive officer David Grevemberg said the event is yet to find the perfect answer to its para sport dilemma.

“It’s the largest para sport program (in Commonwealth Games history),” he said of the Gold Coast Games.

“On one side it’s doing the right thing, and on the other side there is some risk to it. I think that’s something that we’ve recognised. We’ve even ring fenced a number of events. The response between some of the CGA’s (Commonwealth Games Associations) and Paralympic committees in terms of getting their work together right still needs some development.

“We also had the UCI running their para cycling world championships right now and that’s something that has obviously, I think, distracted the interest of some athletes from attending in cycling so the field is there.

“It’s something that we’re taking a look at and working closely with the IPC (International Paralympic Committee). The IPC and the CGF have had a longstanding relationship and certainly going into Birmingham 2022 we will look to ensure that none of the integrity of the widely and regularly practising aspect is truly reflected.

“One of the things we’re really trying to do is to stabilise the sports program even more for para sport. The ebbs and flows of para sport in terms of entries is something that even the Paralympic Games has experienced in recent years.”

(Sophie Thornhill and pilot Helen Scott celebrate on an otherwise empty podium – Photo by Loughborough Echo)