Roger Vaughan & Steve Larkin / AAP News
World athletics champions Eleanor Patterson and Kelsey-Lee Barber have provided some timely heft as Australia aims to storm England’s sporting castle at the Commonwealth Games.
But for every sign of confidence from a star such as swimmer Ariarne Titmus, there’s been a setback for the Australians, with teammate Isaac Cooper sent home for abusing a medication.
While Patterson and Barber will be massive gold medal favourites in Birmingham, fellow athletes Liz Clay, Riley Day and Joseph Deng are out because of injury and Ash Moloney could join them.
Sprint ace Caleb Ewan will be one of the riders to beat in the men’s road race, but he is coming out of a barren Tour de France where he won no stages and crashed twice.
Middle distance runner Jessica Hull had to go into isolation at the world titles after also testing positive and she must pass PCR tests before being cleared to compete at the Games.
Titmus and diver Shixin Li have had bouts of the virus
The ups and downs of the lead-in to the Games underscore the challenge ahead.
England will be formidable at home and fighting to avoid another Commonwealth Games beating from Australia.
“It’s tough on someone else’s patch,” Australian Commonwealth Games Association chief executive Craig Phillips told AAP.
“But the reality for us is, we are the No.1 sporting nation in the Commonwealth so there is always that expectation.”
Australia will send 435 athletes to the July 28-August 8 Games in Birmingham in England’s west midlands.
The Saxon village which grew into a town in the 12th Century is now England’s second-largest city and will host the 20th edition of the Commonwealth Games.
Australia has topped the medal table at 11 Games, England seven, Canada one.
Since 1994, Australia has been unseated from the head of the medal table just once – by the Poms at the last Games on British soil, Glasgow 2014.
“We certainly didn’t get there in Glasgow and we know the English will be tough on home soil,” Phillips said.
“But given our status in the Commonwealth, it’s hard for us to hide behind. We declare it, that No.1 mantle.
“One of the by-products of the delayed Tokyo Olympics is we have tended to be able to carry some of that form forward … we are in good shape across the board.”
Indeed, Patterson won the high jump at the just-completed world titles in Oregon and Barber defended her javelin crown.
Patterson and Nicola Olyslagers, the Tokyo Olympics silver medallist, should give Australia gold and silver in their event.
Australians harvested 80 golds at the Gold Coast Games four years ago.
And over the past five Games, Aussies have won an average of 74 gold medals.
Of Birmingham’s 19 sports, Australia won gold in 15 of them four years ago.
Plus, Birmingham has added women’s Twenty20 cricket – which suits Australia, a five-time world champion in the format.
Where will the other medals come from? Swimming, largely.
At the Gold Coast pool, Australia set a fresh high-water mark: 28 gold, including five to Mitch Larkin and four to Emma McKeon, among 73 swimming medals.
McKeon also won four Olympic golds in Tokyo last year and could scale heights never accomplished by an Australian at a Commonwealth Games.
In Birmingham, McKeon could better the Australian record for most golds at a Games: six, by Susie O’Neill in 1998 and Ian Thorpe in 2002.
The swim team, with the likes of Olympic champions Titmus, Kaylee McKeown and Zac Stubblety-Cook, remain hungry for success.
But their preparations hit a significant setback when Cooper, a strong gold medal hope in backstroke, was banished because of his medication issue.
While cycling is usually a strong medal source for Australia, this time there’s a spanner in the works.
Australian cyclists won 14 Commonwealth golds four years ago, but track cycling is rebuilding after a Tokyo Olympics disaster which returned just one bronze medal.
Regardless of Ewan’s form wobble and the withdrawal of Tour de France stage winner Michael Matthews, the road squad looks strong and could repeat its sweep of four gold medals on the Gold Coast.
Time trial star Rohan Dennis and the in-form Grace Brown are other headliners.
On the Gold Coast, Australia’s track and field team collected 13 golds and now they’re coming off the world titles where they finished sixth on the medal tally – Nina Kennedy also won silver in the javelin.
They’ll join Meg Lanning’s team of cricketers, Australia’s men’s and women’s basketball, lawn bowlers, hockey and beach volleyball players as gold medal favourites.
And gymnastics, squash, table tennis and triathlon loom as genuine shots to help Australia retain its reputation as the Commonwealth’s sporting power.
The Australian team will be split into five in Birmingham.
Games organisers had planned a single athlete’s village but its construction “had very little scope to withstand the impact of COVID-19” and was delayed.
The Australian athletes will stay at two university campuses, and two hotels and track cyclists will be in London where they’ll compete at the capital’s velodrome used at the 2012 Olympics.
The split accommodation also mitigates the risks of a coronavirus outbreak within the team.
“It wasn’t the reason it happened … but it actually does help us,” Phillips said.
Against the COVID-19 backdrop, Phillips and his executive team have mandated that Australia’s athletes will depart within two days of their competition finishing.
“Regrettably we are sending people home early which is not something that we wanted to do, but it’s prudent,” he said.
The Australians will foster a team spirit ahead of chef de mission Petria Thomas picking a flag bearer for the opening ceremony at Birmingham’s 30,000-capacity Alexander Stadium.