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Pigeons flew, young girls danced, Mounties rode their horses to a musical accompaniment, Queen Elizabeth II delivered her message in French and English and the crowd heartily cheered the return of South Africa.

So began the 15th Commonwealth Games on Thursday as 3,350 athletes from a record 64 nations began 10 days of competition in this provincial capital on the southern tip of British Columbia's Vancouver Island.The jets of Canada's Snowbirds precision flying team roared in tight formation over the makeshift stadium at the University of Victoria, where some 33,500 people gathered to watch the pageantry surrounding the queen's opening of the Games. An estimated 500 million watched on television worldwide.

Competition began today in eight sports, including swimming. Some of the top swimmers in the world are entered.

Australian Hayley Lewis will try to add to the five gold medals she won four years ago in Auckland, New Zealand.

Her countryman, Phil Rogers, the short course world record-holder for the 100-meter breaststroke, will go against 200 champion Jon Cleveland of Canada and favored Nick Gillingham of England.

Another Australian, Kieren Perkins, who holds the world record at 800 and 1,500 meters, goes in the 200 freestyle.

The opening day of competition also includes badminton, boxing, cycling gymnastics, lawn bowling, wrestling and shooting. Track and field starts Monday and weightlifting begins Tuesday.

The 21/2-hour opening ceremony was produced by Jacques Lemay, who also put together the opening extravaganza for the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988. Thursday's themes were tied to the native heritage of Vancouver Island, and to the different cultures of the people of Canada.

The 3,800 performers in the opening ceremony ranged in age from 6 weeks to 95 years. The baby was recruited to the choir while the oldest was an elder of the Coast Salish Nation, whose members officially welcomed the visitors from the former British Empire to their native land.

A portion of the crowd broke out in cheers as the blue-clad South Africans entered the stadium. When the announcer said, "Ladies and gentlemen, returning to the Commonwealth of Nations is South Africa," the rest of the crowd stood and cheered.

South Africa last appeared in the Games in 1958. The country was booted from the commonwealth in 1961 for its apartheid policies, but returned when the black majority was granted equal status.

The beaming athletes and officials waved tiny flags from their newly integrated land.

The athletes waved as they walked past the queen. Only the delegation from Tonga bowed to her.