GOLD COAST - The Gold Coast, with its 70km of beaches and sea, surf and sun identity, threw a distinctively Australian bash on Wednesday (April 4) to mark the start of the 21st Commonwealth Games.
The opening ceremony at the fully-packed 35,000-seat Carrara Stadium was beamed to an estimated 1.5 billion television audience, and viewers were treated to a spectacular showpiece despite a sudden and brief downpour minutes before the programme began.
There were dancing lifesavers and bikini-clad performers, a life-sized lifeguard tower and surf boats used as props, Australian artists Delta Goodrem and Ricki-Lee Coulter singing in the middle of the stadium transformed into a inland beach and a floating, giant balloon of famed white whale Migaloo, which passes the Gold Coast every winter.
The three-hour pageant, which cost A$26 million (S$26.3 million), was also interspersed with strong indigenous themes and featured a 500-piece didgeridoo (traditional wind instrument) orchestra and ballet dancers from the famous Bangarra Aboriginal dance company.
Among the VIPs in attendance were Prince Charles and his wife Camilla and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Britain's heir to the throne, after receiving the Queen's Baton, which had travelled for 388 days and more than 230,000km around the world, declared the Games open.
History will be made on several fronts at the Gold Coast Games, which cost the State and local government more than A$1.5 billion.
They feature 18 sports and welcome 6,600 athletes and officials from 71 Commonwealth nations and territories.
This is the first edition to offer the same number of events for male and female competitors, the integrated para-sport programme will be the most extensive in the Games history and it will introduce women's rugby sevens and beach volleyball.
In her speech, Commonwealth Games Federation president Louise Martin noted the Games has become more relevant than ever before and its deeply diverse makeup can have a positive impact on the world. She added: "This is a platform to show the world what it means to be a Commonwealth athlete."
It is the fifth time Australia is hosting the quadrennial Games (Sydney 1938; Perth 1962; Brisbane 1982; Melbourne 2006) and the hosts will be seeking to reclaim their top dog status. The previous edition in Glasgow in 2014 saw England emerge as overall champions with 58 golds, dislodging Australia for the first time since 1986.
Singapore has sent a contingent of 60 athletes, including four para-athletes - the 2002 Manchester Games were the first major multi-sport event to include para-athletes in the main sports programme - and will compete in 11 sports.
The Republic finished 11th in the medal table four years ago with eight gold, five silver and four bronze medals.
National shooter Teo Shun Xie, the reigning women's 10m air pistol champion, was the country's flag-bearer.
She said: "It was exhilarating marching into the stadium with my team-mates. I was quite anxious as this is my first time as the flag-bearer. The excitement hit the minute I walked into the stadium. The crowd cheered loudly and it was a fantastic atmosphere. Made me feel twice as honoured to be carrying the Singapore flag and representing Singapore at the Games."
While fears of issues ranging from security - 10,000 security forces, including police and soldiers, have been deployed for the 12-day event - and transport have been largely eased, there have been some controversies in the lead-up.
A doctor for India's boxing team was issued a written reprimand by the organisers after breaching the no-needle policy following an investigation when syringes were found in the athletes' village.
The Mauritian chef de mission Kaysee Teeroovengadum had been accused of indecent assault on a Mauritian athlete and had stepped down, while a section of yesterday's Queen's Baton relay had to be redirected due to indigenous rights activists.
Notwithstanding the 1.1 million tickets sold - 1.24 million were available - for the Gold Coast Games, the appeal of the Commonwealth Games has diluted in recent years, with many host cities hesitant to spend the money needed to build or redevelop the necessary infrastructure.
Only South Africa's Durban had bid for the 2022 event but the coastal city was stripped of the privilege last year after after a series of missed deadlines and financial problems. England's Birmingham was later awarded the hosting rights.
Despite the absence of several big names, including Singapore's Joseph Schooling and track and field stars David Rudisha, Andre de Grasse and Wayde van Niekerk, the Gold Coast Games will still feature a handful of world-class draws like Tom Daley (diving), Chad le Clos and Adam Peaty (swimming), Elaine Thompson and Caster Semenya (athletics) and Lee Chong Wei (badminton).
Le Clos, who is targeting a medal in all his seven events, told the Games News Service on Sunday (April 1): "I'm very excited, I'm not just saying that. I've raced in Australia once before at a smaller meet in Perth but to be here in this arena, which is going to be sold out every night, that's going to be amazing."