Australians capture historic first Commonwealth Games Gold

The 16th Commonwealth Games were held last month in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, amidst an atmosphere of enthusiasm, warm hospitality and flourishing national pride. Pride based on the impressive Games' facilities and the even more impressive task of having successfully conducted the Games under considerable financial strain currently causing problems for the entire Asia region.

The 1998 edition of the Games marked the first time team sports were included in the multi-sport event - which was inaugurated in 1930 - and hockey made an impressive debut. As was the case with many other events, the Australians - both men and women - captured gold.

The women's tournament was held at the KL Pantai Stadium, and the control of the World and Olympic Champion Australia women's team was never in doubt. It wasn't until the Australians faced New Zealand in the semi-finals that they conceded their first goal of the tournament. Australia, who topped Pool A, downed 2nd place Pool B finishers, New Zealand, 7-3, in the semi-final, to set up its finals appearance. Australia faced England, first in Pool B, who defeated 2nd place Pool A finishers, India, 2-0, in the other semi-final

Australia finished off the tournament with an impressive 8-1 defeat of England in the final, while New Zealand collected a bronze medal with its 3-0 defeat of India. No classification matches were held for the other places.

In the men's tournament, held at the impressive Bukit Jalil Hockey Stadium in the Games' sports complex, Australia took gold with a 4-0 finals victory over hosts Malaysia, who have made significant progress since the team's 11th place finish at the recent World Cup. Many give credit for the quick turn-around to German Coach Paul Lissek, who was brought in to coach the team for the Commonwealth Games. Lissek, at the same time, gives all due credit to the players and their willingness to do what was asked of them.

Despite their defeat to Australia, Malaysia's men came away from the tournament virtually as national heroes, having made it further than anyone expected and providing a massive boost for Malaysian hockey on many fronts.

In the bronze-medal match, England finally defeated India on penalty strokes (4-2), after playing to a 1-1 draw in regulation time and remaining deadlocked after extra time.

Despite the occasional and relatively minor controversies that arose during the men's and women's tournaments, in the final analysis, it has to be said that the Commonwealth Games were a great promotion for hockey with some wonderful - and hopefully long-term - positive byproducts.

The Malaysian men, again with a feel for their potential and a taste of success, seem keen to build on that success. And the Malaysian Hockey Federation, also eager to ride the wave to new heights, are reported to be planning a bid to host the 2002 Men's World Cup in what many have described (and few could dispute the description) as the world's finest hockey stadium. Malaysian women's hockey now also has a home of its own in the Pantai Stadium, which was completely refurbished for the Games.

Teams like Jamaica and Namibia in the women's tournament, Kenya in the men's and Trinidad & Tobago in both were given the opportunity - a rare one - to test their mettle against the world's best teams. Other squads, like Canada and Malaysia (women), and South Africa and Wales (men) - not quite World Cup level at the moment, but not too far off - got more of the competition they need to help raise them to the next level.

And listening to coaches after losses, even big ones, this is precisely the message that came through. In spite of defeat, there was no feeling of defeatism. On the contrary, teams were inspired by the strength, skill and success of the top teams, and went home discussing ways - someday - their country would be going home with gold. "We have to work harder...We have to find funding...We have to develop youth programmes..."

Hockey also benefited from being part of a multi-sport event. As part of a package, hockey was more easily sold and promoted than on its own. As a result, both tournaments received great coverage in the broadcast and print media - particularly in countries where hockey might not otherwise have been seen.

It is not yet decided - apart from netball - which team sports will be included in the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester. The FIH will be taking steps to help ensure hockey stays on the programme.