Pleasure in athletics success can't mask gap in class
If it started with a whimper, against a background of last-minute track repairs and with the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium dreadfully empty, it finished with a barely believable noise as 60,000 screaming Indians roared their 4x400m women to an utterly unexpected gold.
It was a wonderful way for the seven days of athletics at the 2010 Commonwealth Games to finish. But what of the action that came before?
We knew before coming to Delhi that many big names would not be joining us. There would be no Usain, no Asafa, no Rudisha and no Ennis.
The optimists hoped that others would emerge to fill that star-sized vacuum. A few did. Athlete of the championships was surely Uganda's Moses Kipsiro, winner of a fine 5,000m and 10,000m distance double against the odds and might of Kenya; Amantle Monsho's 400m gold was both Botswana's first ever Commonwealth gold and also a Games record.
Look beyond those two, and the gap between what we saw and what would be considered world class began to gape.
India's victorious women's 4x400m quartet celebrate their country's first Commonwealth track title since 1958. Photo: Getty
"I'll go away thinking Delhi is a very cool place," says Jonathan Edwards, who won Commonwealth triple jump gold in Manchester eight years ago. "Unfortunately the quality just hasn't been there.
"You just can't deny that the standards have been disappointing. For me it's not enough that some races were competitive - athletics is measured as much by numbers as medals.
"You do get weaker years with some events even at the Olympics, and while the triple jump here wasn't great, it was about the same back in 1994. But some events here in Delhi were so disappointing. The women's long jump was won with 6.50m, the triple jump by just over 14m. There just hasn't been the depth of quality across the Commonwealth."
That lack of depth meant that some of the big names who did come to Delhi were never forced out of second gear.
"I'm really struggling to think of world-class performances," says three-time Commonwealth gold medallist Steve Cram. "Sally Pearson's 100m hurdles was in that category, but Olympic pole vault champion Steve Hooker could relax all the way through his competition.
"We only had 11 entries for the 110m hurdles. That's not good. We only had 14 women in the 400m hurdles. The Commonwealth Games are meant to have some breadth - some world-class athletes, some emerging, and some representing the fact that these are the Friendly Games - but here some of the competition was very sparse. There were too many straight finals and too many cancelled heats."
The night before competition began, there were genuine fears that the stadium would not be ready. Repairs were still being made to the track at the 1500m start line, the in-field grass still being laid.
Come the following afternoon, all was in place. Unfortunately, further organisational mistakes would blight the rest of the week.
You could take your pick - Sally Pearson winning 100m gold, celebrating on a lap of honour and walking out for her medal ceremony only to then be told that she'd been disqualified; the women's 200m final being postponed a day after a delay in the appeals protest following another controversial disqualification; New Zealand's Stuart Farquhar throwing 77m in the javelin final, only to find the officials initially recording it as 72m.
The welcome from security and behind-the-scenes staff at the stadium was wonderfully warm throughout the week. It made it a pleasure to be here. But those very avoidable errors out in the middle cast a lengthy shadow.
"I was never once told the truth or told what was going on," said Pearson, who behaved with immense dignity throughout her unfortunate experience. "I don't think that was fair. This is our careers."
"There was a struggle to set the athletics alight," says Cram. "If you were to send the results around the athletics world, no-one would be thinking that these were a great championships.
"Because of that, we might remember these Commonwealths more for those organisational issues and for how some of the problems were handled.
"The officials who are here have been under too much pressure, because there haven't been enough people here with the right level of experience. The good ones have had to try to cover the cracks left by the others."
Wales' Dai Greene added to his European gold by winning the Commonweath 400m hurdles title. Photo: Getty
From an international perspective, Kenya's decision to send a full and top-class team was rewarded with top place in the medal table. From the point of view of the home nations, Wales' Dai Greene and England's golden pair of Leon Baptiste and Louise Hazel were the stand-out performers. Scotland's Steph Twell confirmed once again that she is developing into a runner of the highest quality.
"The winning is tough to do," says double Commonwealth gold medallist Colin Jackson. "They have to take the events by the scruff of the neck and I think competitors from the home nations have done that well."
What of those British stars who decided to stay at home?
"Sometimes it's hard to get a real commitment from top athletes," says Jackson. "They've had a long season which has included the World Championships. They are now going for 2012 and they have to work out where the Commonwealth Games fits in their schedules.
"For Dai Greene it worked and fitted in perfectly with his plans. For Jessica Ennis it didn't. It's a personal thing. Me? I would have done it and I would have made it work."
The atmosphere in the grandstands can often make or break an athletics meet. Here in Delhi we had the full range, from a ghostly silence on the first two nights to the defeaning bedlam of the final night.
"When they've been here they've been brilliant," says Cram. "We had around 40,000 people in the stadium on Saturday and Sunday, and we'd struggle to get that in the UK after five days of action.
"At times the atmosphere was very refreshing - they haven't always understood the etiquette, but they've made a heck of a noise. At other times it was extraordinary. When India won discus gold, the whole place erupted. When they won the 400m relay, I've honestly never heard a noise like it, even at an Olympic Games."
What of the future of athletics at the Commonwealths? Two days into the Games, former England medallist Darren Campbell wondered if the next edition should be held as an under-23 championships.
"I think the feel of the next Commonwealth Games will be vastly different," says Jackson. "The successful domestic athletes will want to go after 2012, while the ones who failed will want to prove a point. I think there will be more top names in Glasgow too."
From a personal point of view, what made the competition for me was the pleasure some took in their success.
Whether it was the face of Mark Lewis-Francis as he blitzed the final leg of the 4x100m to snatch gold from Jamaica's back pocket, Pearson's joy as she put the nightmare of the 100m behind her to take the hurdles title, or the reaction in the stands all around me as India's heroines stormed to that historic relay gold, the emotion was impossible to ignore, and impossible not to be touched by.
That, really, was the delight of Delhi.