Let the Games Begin

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Young basketballers on parade during last year’s opening night ceremony.

 

Young basketballers on parade during last year’s opening night ceremony.

by Gene Marrano

It’s huge—it encompasses almost 60 sports and close to 10,000 athletes from all across Virginia. The much anticipated 22nd annual Coventry Commonwealth Games, which have actually been going on in bits and pieces for several months now, culminates with the Main Games held in Roanoke this weekend. Designed for athletes from 7 to 70 – and beyond—the competition, the official state games of  Virginia, warmed up in the valley last weekend with the baseball competition. (See related story in Sports.)

Virginia Amateur Sports (VAS), a Roanoke-based organization that manages the Commonwealth Games and a handful of other athletic events, works with a paid staff of just four and scores of volunteers, who keep tallies at games, time the athletes and keep runners on course. The AEP Festival in the Park run, the Star City half marathon and the Salem distance run next month are among the other events managed by VAS and its corps of volunteers. In May, VAS held a championship for club lacrosse high school teams in Richmond, for schools that don’t field varsity squads.

The Main Games Weekend officially begins every year with the Friday night opening ceremonies (July 15, 7:30 p.m., sponsored by Subway), featuring a parade of athletes and a tailgate party beforehand. Every registered athlete is invited to join the parade at the Roanoke Civic Center, and the tailgate at the Special Events Center. VAS Executive Director Pete Lampman has been told by participants who travel to games elsewhere that this “is one of the most outstanding events” they have taken part in.

Paralympics medalist John Register, a track and field long jump specialist, will deliver the keynote address on Friday and pop singer Ashlyne Huff will perform.  “[Register] is a great speaker,” said Lampman, who heard him previously at a conference. There’s also an acrobatic team that dunks basketballs (Air Elite) with the use of a trampoline and pyrotechnics at the end. (Admission is $5 and $3 for children).

Lampman compares it to the opening ceremonies at the Olympics, albeit with a much smaller budget; it is “the same concept, with a lot of fanfare.” Keynote speakers in the past have included a number of Olympic medalists.

More than 2400 athletes have already competed in the Commonwealth Games this year, in sports ranging from adult softball, tennis and baton twirling, to ice skating, youth swimming and cycling. In addition to Roanoke, events are held in Waynesboro and Hampton.

“We actually have an 87 year old swimmer [this weekend],” said Lampman; “she’s in five events.” An 85 year old played tennis this past weekend. Venues in use locally this weekend include the Moyer softball complex in Salem, Green Hill Park, the Roanoke River Greenway and the Botetourt Sports Complex. (See commonwealthgames.org for a complete list of events and venues.)

Winners of certain events at the Coventry Commonwealth Games can qualify for the biannual State Games of America, facing off against the best amateur athletes from similar events in other states.

It’s the Main Games weekend that is the biggest part of the competition every year; Lampman estimates that the thousands who converge on the valley to eat, sleep and compete pump between three and four million dollars into the economy annually.

“It looks like we’ll be as [big] as last year, maybe more,” said Lampman about the number of athletes and families he expects in town this weekend. “Once they’re here they love the place,” added Lampman, who hopes some of those people will return just to visit the valley.

This November, VAS will introduce a new footrace for runners and their dogs, a run planned to be held on the North Cross School campus. “It will be neat – different,” said Lampman. A veterinarian office – Big Lick in Southwest Roanoke County – is sponsoring the new event.

The VAS staff will spend the next month or so paying bills; then it’s time to start thinking about 2012. “We start in September securing sites [for next year],” said Lampman, “trying to see what volunteers are coming back and what sports people may be interested in.”