by Gene Marrano
Once again around 10,000 amateur athletes and their families will descend on the Roanoke Valley next month for the annual Commonwealth Games July 20-22, which will feature dozens of competitive events for athletes of all ages and skill levels. They are the Subway Commonwealth Games this year, as the ubiquitous sandwich shop chain has stepped in to replace Coventry as the title sponsor.
The Commonwealth Games are the Virginia state games, with medalists here eligible to go on to the bi-annual national State Games competition. They also pump several million dollars a year into the valley’s economy – all of those people need a place to eat, sleep and play when not at an event. Those events, by the way, include basketball, track & field, badminton, rifle shooting, swimming, chess, softball, all-star high school baseball (held the week before the “main games” weekend at Kiwanis Field in Salem), auto cross, flag football, etc.
Virginia Amateur Sports operates the Commonwealth Games, along with an army of volunteers. The games have been based in Roanoke for every one of its 23 years, although some of the competition is staged elsewhere and can be spread over several months. High School club lacrosse, for example, was played recently in Charlottesville, for schools that do not have varsity level programs. Several squads from southwest Roanoke County took part.
One highlight of the Main Games weekend is an Olympic-style Opening Ceremonies, complete with a parade of athletes, pyrotechnics and a guest speaker at the Roanoke Civic Center (July 20, 7:30pm). There’s a tailgate party beforehand for athletes as well.
One new wrinkle for Opening Night this year: a Washington Redskins 80th anniversary publicity bus tour that will be rolling through the area at that time, complete with several players, will make a stop at the Civic Center to greet athletes at the tailgate party. Instead of musical entertainment this year the opening ceremonies will include a BMX bike demonstration after the athletes parade in.
VAS Executive Director Pete Lampman is hoping he can persuade one of the ‘Skins to say a few words at the opening night ceremonies as well. “It’s the last stop on the tour,” said Lampman, “so that’s nice.”
The keynote speaker on opening night continues another tradition for the Commonwealth Games, which have remained in Roanoke despite overtures from bigger cities in the state. The Games have welcomed a number of Olympic medalists to the podium, and will do so again this year with speed skating gold medalist Joey Cheek. He took the top prize at the Turin, Italy Olympics in 2006. That’s “10-13” Olympic medalists, according to Lampman.
Cheek can certainly talk to the opening night crowd about determination: the Greensboro native was 16 years old, watching the Winter Olympics on television, when he decided that being in the games himself would be his goal. So he moved to Canada and trained to be a speed skater. “The rest is history,” said Lampman, who has been with the Commonwealth Games for all but the first two as director. “Sixteen years old and you’re setting a goal like that?” he marvels about Cheek, “it’s pretty impressive.”
Financially the games “are hanging in there,” despite the economy, said Lampman. He likes to say there is a game for all athletes, “from six to eighty-plus. There’s something there for everyone.” Participants can sign up as late as the day of competition in many cases. See commonwealthgames.org for more details.