Every four years the Commonwealth Games seems to spark a debate in the athletics world or in those parts of it that have any connection with the old British Empire, at least. What's it for? Is there any point to it? Should it really be regarded as a major date on the world athletics calendar?
Clearly, any athletics programme that excludes the vast majority of Europe, all of USA, virtually all of South America, and China, is missing something in comparison to the global championships.
Stepping stone for emerging elites
Yet, while there's no doubt some events are of a lower standard than those at the worlds or Olympic Games, or even some of the continental championships, every Commonwealth Games throws up athletes and performers to rank with the best in the world. And it can often provide a significant platform for future world stars.
Just four years ago, for example, Paula Radcliffe brought the Stadium of Manchester to its feet when she ran away with the 5000m her first major championship success on the track. A week later she smashed the European 10,000m record in Munich's pouring rain at the Europeans, and the following April she obliterated the world Marathon record in London.
The 2002 Games also gave Kim Collins his first taste of championship success as the little known man from St Kitts and Nevis glided to the gold ahead of home favourites Dwain Chambers and Mark Lewis-Francis. A year later Collins stole Maurice Greene's crown to become World 100m champion and establish himself as one of the most marketable stars on the global scene.
Unfortunately, neither Radcliffe nor Collins will be defending their titles in Melbourne, both forced to withdraw with injuries Radcliffe with a bruised foot and Collins with a groin injury.
A number of other significant Commonwealth athletes will also be missing including South Africa's Mblaeni Mulaudzi, tipped to retain his 800m title, and Jamaica's brilliant youngster Usain Bolt, a hot favourite for the 200m title.
But even without such prominent names, the 84,000 capacity Melbourne Cricket Ground will provide a magnificent stage for a host of World and Olympic champions and World record holders. Not to mention a few names yet to register the global radar screens.
Mutola heads cast of Moscow medallists
Not least of the stars will be Mozambique's Maria Mutola, hot off the plane from her astonishing seventh world indoor title. Mutola will be aiming to retain her women's 800m title, no doubt hotly pursued by the Moscow silver medallist Kenia Sinclair of Jamaica.
Other Moscow medallist making an unusually rapid transition to outdoor athletics this season are Ghana's long jumper Ignisius Gaisah and Grenada's Alleyne Francique who'll be hoping to add the Commonwealth title to his recent World indoor 400m gold.
First major competition appearance for Powell since World record
The star of the show, however, could well be Jamaica's Asafa Powell who is making his first appearance at a major championships since breaking the World 100m record last summer.
Powell, who broke down with a groin injury at the London Grand Prix last July, made his return to the track at the Telstra A meeting in Melbourne a week ago and came through unscathed in 10.29, run into a biting wind, beating a number of his major Commonwealth rivals.
Powell's opponents here will include fellow Jamaican Michael Frater, the Trinidadians Marc Burns and Darrell Brown, England's trio of Jason Gardener, Mark Lewis Francis and Marlon Devonish, and Ghana's Abdul Aziz Zakari.
According to Gardener, only the absence of the Americans, Justin Gatlin in particular, make this a lesser contest than a world championships final. Gardener is troubled by a back problem, but if he's fit to run England will field the same 4x100m relay line-up that took Olympic gold in 2004.
Otherwise, Jamaica could dominate the sprints with Olympic champion Veronica Campbell the highlight of the women's 200m. Campbell warmed up for the Games with a number of indoor races in Europe this winter and is hotly tipped to succeed the Bahamas' Debbie Ferguson as Commonwealth champion. Ferguson won double sprint golds in Manchester but is not here to defend her titles.
Other prominent Jamaicans include the hurdling trio of Brigitte Foster, Delloreen Ennis-London and Lacena Golding-Clarke, World champion triple jumper Trecia Smith, and her namesake Maurice Smith in the decathlon.
Mottram, Pittman leading hopefuls for hosts
The hosts' hopes are largely pinned on two athletes World 5000m bronze medallist Craig Mottram and 2003 World 400m Hurdles champion Jana Pittman. Mottram in particular is under huge pressure as he aims to "do an El Guerrouj" and pull off the 1500m/5000m double.
The Australian is clearly in fine form having smashed his national 2000m record at the Telstra A-series IAAF World Athletics Tour meeting in Melbourne last week. Mottram clocked 4:50.76 to beat Simon Doyle's 1992 mark by 10 seconds.
Mottram's duel with Kenya's World 5000m champion Benjamin Limo could be one of the highlights of the programme, and the fast-finishing Australian increased the host nation's collective sense of anticipation when he threw down the gauntlet this week.
"Now the ball is in the Kenyans' court," he said. "They are going to have to drop me in the first three kilometres because they probably know they can't keep up with me over the last two. I am in good shape and I am ready to go."
Pittman appears ready to go too although, as ever with her, she seems to be embroiled in an artless feud with the Australian press. Pittman is by far the quickest in the field and easily defeated England's Nicola Sanders, potentially her closest challenger, in the Melbourne warm-up meeting.
Long jumper Bronwyn Thompson is another Aussie in with a shout. She heads what should be a close contest with India's Anju Bobby George, Jamaica's Elva Goulbourne and England's Jade Johnson in the field.
Four years ago, as host nation, England won 29 medals including 12 golds. This time, however, Kelly Sotherton is England's main, and possibly only hope of a gold from a somewhat depleted squad.
Comeback for Macey?
She might compete in the Long Lump if there is a straight final but her main chance comes in the Heptathlon, the event at which she won Olympic bronze in 2004. The unpredictable, injury-prone decathlete Dean Macey fourth in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics is another potential medallist for the English.
Macey suffered a hamstring scare two days before boarding the plane to Australia but still claims he can win the gold. "I'm cooking on gas," said the ebullient Essex man. "I'm going to start and if I'm starting, I'm dangerous. This could be a great stepping stone for my career."
The Commonwealth Games are often seen a staging post for up and coming athletes. They tend to be referred to as the "Friendly Games" but they're also known for their unpredictability.
One thing's for sure, however if the Sydney Olympics are any guide, the atmosphere will be electric.
And if Mottram and Pitman come up trumps, the Aussies won't care what the wider world thinks. Maybe that's the point.
Matthew Brown for IAAF.org
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