The Coast is clear, but golden memories remain

Susan Ninan in Gold Coast5 Minute Read
Susan Ninan/ESPN

The helpful announcer on the light rail stops with station names, and doesn't tell you anymore to get off at Griffith University for the Athletes' Village or Broadbeach North for the Games Superstore. The big white surfboard with a digital clock on Surfers Paradise no longer keeps time. The green waves have drowned out memories of teenagers straggling back from the beach drenched in blinding purple-gold lights.

It's only 24 hours since the end of the Games, and Gold Coast is still getting over the 11 days of sporting madness, festive fever and road diversions, as the locals head back home.

My 80-year-old Airbnb host Joan tells me that she will be throwing a wine party for her peers who are returning this weekend, having fled the city before the Games began. She herself was brave enough to stay back. The fear of massive crowds and traffic chaos got many locals to pack up and go as far as they could. Even as far as Malaysia. Local businesses too suffered, with many people barely making rent.

But for all that it took away, the Games gave back plenty in sporting moments.

For India, this has been a Games like no other. Sixty-six medals won, 26 of them gold. Of course, it is not to say that the medal-glut of Delhi 2010 or Manchester 2002 should be forgotten, but Gold Coast is special because besides just going ahead of Glasgow 2014's gold count by 11, it brought with it the joy of the unexpected.

Mary Kom reacts after beating Northern Ireland's Kristina O'Hara in the women's 45-48kg boxing final at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

Roughly 82% of India's medals in Gold Coast came from five sports. Table tennis (who would've thought?) made up 12%. Of course, the regular strongholds -- shooting, wrestling, weightlifting and boxing -- led the medal run. But throw in the rare athletics gold, the rush of teens lighting up the track and firing up the shooting range, and you'd know why this is special, why this could be the promise for the bigger, better and brighter.

Just days before the Games, India were caught in a needle controversy. The ambiguity around the incident gave local tabloids a field day, pasting India on banner headings and suggesting the country was already up to mischief. The night before the opening ceremony, the Commonwealth Games Federation wanted it all cleaned up and a relieved CEO David Grevemberg later assured journalists that there was "nothing to worry about" and that he could finally get back to putting the Games together. The cloud of dope threat was lifted, and after the rains, dance and march of the proud athletes at the opening ceremony, we were thrust into the belly of action.

We headed into the opening day of competition knowing that weightlifting would get the medal race kick-started for India. There was Gururaja, son of a pick-up truck driver, equaling his personal best of 269 kg and lifting India's first medal at this Games, a silver. The afternoon session brought with it the gold standard of Mirabai Chanu. The audience gasped, almost as if lifting the barbell with her, as she melted records and brought gold.

Now, Indians were being spoiled. We were crosschecking with each other at the end of day's play of medals won and gold medals won. We now had two separate numbers to tally and, of course, it came in handy when a particularly friendly cabbie inquired how your country was doing on the medals.

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I once had a former organising committee member of the 1990 Auckland Games drive me up to one of the venues, making conversation by asking when Mary Kom's bout was. Originally from New Zealand, he has now retired to a life by the beach, driving cabs three days a week.

Of course, there were some gold medals that would have taken an apocalypse for India not to win, like that of Sushil Kumar or Mary. But for both the hockey teams to catch the flight back home with little more than soiled socks and jerseys stuffed into their suitcases, was massively disappointing.

Still, for every athlete or team that lost the plot, there was the curious, heartwarming, uplifting success story, like Manika Batra. With her pimpled rubber and her four medals, she got table tennis to be discussed more these 11 days than the last four years put together. I wished one of our girl gymnasts would have a Dipa Karmakar moment, but I was pushing my luck there.

Manvender Vashist/PTI

Then, there was Saina Nehwal, squinting in the afternoon sun as we asked her about her dad, her shin, her rivalry with PV Sindhu, but she had her gold medal and was happy to answer. Sindhu, though, stuck around her mother for a while posing with her silver medal before disappearing with a polite smile. Matches between the two aren't easy on either. A tussle between age and experience, between two favorites of one coach, two darlings of one sport.

But if I had to pick my favorite Indian medalist at this Games, I'd go with Neeraj Chopra. The young javelin thrower made the rest of the field look like school boys who barely knew what they were up to. And yet, he remained so unaffected by his own success, so unmoved by its magnitude that you could wager a bet with yourself that two years from now, he'd be stepping on to a bigger podium in Tokyo. "Gosh he's so gorgeous. He's going to be a movie star," a middle-aged lady volunteer blushed to me later. I think I nodded.

But now that the Games are over, souvenirs have flown off racks, the adorable Borobis are nowhere to be found and what remains of the cultural extravaganza that coincided with the Games is an empty black screen of a makeshift stage on the white sands of Surfers Paradise.

I'll miss the lifting strains of the medal ceremony, the smiling volunteers in hats under a ruthless sun, and getting out of bed each morning, groggy and hopeful that our athletes would turn around the day.

They almost always did.