Sporting action at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham officially began with a gentle roll of a turf bowl across the crisp green.
And after the Tokyo and Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games were held under strict COVID protocols, the friendlies are also the first “free” games.
Walking around the city, there are few signs of the ongoing pandemic and there are no restrictions on fans or media, even near game venues.
Hand sanitizer and masks are optional, and you’ll draw some side glances if you choose to cover your face.
And luckily for the athletes, a positive COVID test doesn’t disqualify them from competing, although the Australian team has imposed stricter rules on its athletes than many others.
Fans are also flocking and ticket sales are on track to make it the UK’s busiest edition of the Games.
Hauser secures first medal, Linn “stoked” with fifth
Australia are expected to clean up their medal tally so trying to finish early in the mantle of the Games’ first medal is a smart move.
This time it went to triathlete Matt Hauser, who took bronze behind England’s Alex Yee and New Zealand’s Hayden Wilde.
“I was fourth by two seconds on the Gold Coast,” said Hauser.
“I would have liked to change it for my home games but it’s good to get the job done four years later in Birmingham.
“You had the whole crowd out there. My training partner was out there on the track. My mom and dad and my grandpa and my girlfriend were in the stands. That was incredible.”
Olympic gold medalist and one of the sport’s all-time greats, Flora Duffy of Bermuda lived up to the hype of winning gold by a wide margin in the women’s event.
Australia’s Sophie Linn put on the second fastest run of any contender behind Duffy on the final stage to sprint home and take fifth place.
The 27-year-old was delighted with the result, having only started the sport four years ago.
“Coming into the last corner I know nobody has a good sprint so I thought I’d just give it a try and I absolutely blew it at the finish,” she said.
And the secret of their rapid success could be thanks to a four-legged friend.
“I have a little dachshund named Willie and my friend Alexey [Vermeulen] is a professional cyclist, so he brings it with him on all our rides when we train together,” Linn said.
“We have this little backpack and it’s a perfect training environment. You can’t have a bad day because if you do a shit workout, I just look and give the dog a little bit of a pet and it’s a little bit of emotional support.”
The Australian mixed relay team has a good chance of winning gold after the efforts of Hauser and Linn and fourth place finisher Jacob Birtwhistle.
“I think team morale is really high at the moment,” said Linn.
“We really come together as a team and show everyone that we’ve never been away. We’ve always been here, but we’re ready to get back in the game.”
Team sport to the winning start
Women’s T20 cricket made its Commonwealth Games debut when Australia beat India by three wickets.
There was some evidence that there could be a sell-off in Edgbaston thanks to Birmingham’s large Indian population, but it was a considerably smaller crowd that turned up.
Although those who were there, including the Gill family, soaked up the opportunity.
“It’s the first time we’ve seen women play and it’s also the first time we’ve ever watched a cricket match,” said Jessica Gill, from Birmingham.
“Something like this only happens once in a lifetime. It’s nice to be able to tell generations later what happened.”
Australia’s victory was not easy – rarely against the best sides in the world – but in moments of crisis there always seems to be another player to the rescue.
After India finished 8-152, the Australian chase was in deep trouble at 5-49.
But Ash Gardner and Grace Harris pulled the page out of the hole as one of Australia’s most dominant teams in all sports began their march towards historic gold.
“We loved the atmosphere of the Commonwealth Games and welcome this new experience,” said Australia captain Meg Lanning.
“It’s been great preparation and being in the opening game is something I’ll definitely remember for a long time.”
Basketball 3×3 and wheelchair basketball 3×3 also make their debuts in Birmingham, and Australia’s women have started with a 21-9 win over Scotland.
As in cricket, all of the strongest netball nations come from the Commonwealth and the Diamonds are looking to redeem their one-goal loss to England in the gold medal match four years ago.
It’s clear that netball is a fan favorite among locals as the NEC Arena is packed and buzzing for England’s win over Trinidad and Tobago.
Australia also had a lopsided win, 95-18 over Barbados.
Play to leave a legacy for the second city
It’s the biggest multisport event England has hosted since the unforgettable London 2012 Olympics, and Brummies are looking to prove England’s second city can do it as well as the capital.
Of course, at the heart of any successful game are the volunteers, including 19-year-old Jemima from Sutton Park – the venue of the triathlon.
“I think it’s absolutely phenomenal that such a big event is happening here,” she said.
“It’s fantastic that such a crazy event comes here from people from all over the world.
“Especially in Sutton Park, which is quite small, it’s like a little park nearby.”
In fact, it’s one of the largest urban parks in Europe and if you were stupid enough to be dropped off at the wrong place, it could take an hour to walk to the triathlon venue.
But it’s an example of organizers relying on the infrastructure in place to make it a more sustainable event.
The Sandwell Aquatics Center is the only new venue built for the Games and there is no centralized athletes’ village, instead accommodation is spread across sites near their venues.
That means people from Birmingham to Coventry to London can get a taste of the games over the next few weeks.