The 1998 Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur represented a landmark in our sport. After 68 years of exclusion, squash was to be brought in from the cold and given the spotlight it deserved, finally included after so many years on the outside looking in.
Australia’s Michelle Martin, who beat compatriot Sarah Fitz-Gerald in the women’s singles gold medal event, says she feels an added sense of pride when she recalls being at the Games. “The dream was to get this Commonwealth Games gold medal. And I always tell people I won the very first one, because the women’s final is always before the men’s final. So I do claim that, big time!” she says.
For Martin, such was the momentous importance of the ’98 Games, she remembers the event far more clearly than any of the matches, including the final. “To be honest, I don’t really remember much of the match,” Martin says.
Instead, the two defining memories of the ’98 Games are the opening ceremony, and the presentation of her gold medals, earned in the women’s singles and the mixed doubles. “I remember the opening ceremony. Myself and [fellow squash player] Carol Owens just wanted to get in front of the swimmers of the Australian team because they used to get all the spotlight! Our aim was to get in front of them on the edge of the track because we knew where the cameras were, just to get on the big screen. And we achieved that.
“Then I remember standing on the podium and I had the biggest smile on my face. I still remember having sore cheeks just from being so happy and so honoured and being able to stand up there when you’ve achieved everything that you set out to achieve. It was just awesome!
“I was very lucky to have my brother there supporting me and coaching me, and my mum up there in the grandstands, that was really special.”
Though Martin went into the Games as an experienced player, ranked World No.2 at the time and having spent 1993 to 1996 as the World No.1, she admits the atmosphere of the Commonwealth Games was something entirely new to her. “It was a very different experience, particularly living in the athlete’s village. There were a lot of other people, a lot of very well known sports people amongst the village. But when you’re in there you’re just a dime a dozen really. There’s so many people that you don’t know from other sports who are just as good as you.
“It was it was really interesting being in amongst it, going to the food hall, getting on the bus every day to and from the courts and being amongst all these other elite athletes, but you’re just one out of the many at the time.”
Just as crowded as the athletes’ village were the public galleries in Malaysia’s National Squash Centre. A mere four days after wowing the crowd with her 3-0 demolition of Fitz-Gerald, Martin was picking up another gold medal alongside Craig Rowland in the mixed doubles.
Reminiscing about her partnership with Rowland, Martin says: “It’s always very different because it’s not just you playing anymore. It’s a team and that you don’t want to let the other person down.
“I just loved playing in that atmosphere in a team environment. I was very fortunate enough to be able to play mixed doubles knowing that I would be able to partner with a very strong male and have the most opportune moment to win another gold medal.”
Martin admits that, invariably, women would be targeted by men during matches, though she feels anyone targeting her would have been pursuing a losing strategy. “You knew that the men were always going to play against the women the so-called weaker one, but I beg to differ with that in my partnership with Craig,” she says.“I pitied the other teams because I – being the strongest woman at the time – knew that the woman on the other team was going to get picked on.”
In picking up two gold medals, Martin was part of a dominant Australia team that picked up 80 golds in Kuala Lumpur, 44 more than second-placed England. While she says that a huge part of the credit for her success must go to her brother, Rodney, and uncle, Lionel Roberts, for their coaching, she says being able to keep calm on court despite the carnival atmosphere outside was also crucial.
For players heading to their first Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, Martin has the following advice: “Go out there and enjoy every moment of it. You don’t necessarily get to experience going to the other sports if you’re very focused on your own sport, but just embrace it all and enjoy the journey as it goes along. Because it’s not something that happens every other tournament. It’s very different.”