Bridge collapse, construction woes, disease fears put New Delhi’s Commonwealth Games at risk

By C. Rajshekhar Rao, AP
Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Commonwealth Games at risk with under 2 weeks left

NEW DELHI — Less than two weeks before it begins, one of the world’s biggest sports events is in jeopardy as organizers struggle to cope with unfinished buildings, a filthy athletes’ village called “unfit for human habitation,” a bridge collapse, concerns over security and corruption, and an outbreak of dengue fever.

The Commonwealth Games, which bring together more than 7,000 athletes from the 71 countries and territories every four years, was supposed to showcase the emerging power of India — just as the 2008 Beijing Olympics did for China.

Instead, the Oct. 3-14 games in New Delhi are highlighting the problems in the developing nation of more than 1 billion people that is still plagued by vast areas of poverty.

The frenzied, last-minute preparations are in such disarray that some officials are speculating that a few teams could withdraw or the event could be called off.

The latest blow came Tuesday, with the collapse of a footbridge being built to connect the main stadium to a parking lot. Police said 23 construction workers were injured, five seriously.

Hours earlier, the Commonwealth Games Federation urged the Indian government to finish work on the athletes’ village, which is due to open Thursday. In addition to shoddy conditions inside and outside the buildings, there also are problems with plumbing, wiring, furnishings, Internet access and cell phone coverage.

“We have to continue to push our concerns at the highest level and you can’t get higher than the Cabinet office of the country and the prime minister,” Commonwealth Games Federation chief executive Mike Hooper told The Associated Press. “They have to come up with a clear plan to meet the needs of athletes and show they can provide consistent standards.”

The games have historically been dominated by England, Australia and Canada, and all three have voiced concerns about the conditions in India.

“It’s hard to cancel an event of this magnitude, but we are close to the wire, and teams may start to take things into their own hands,” England chef de mission Craig Hunter told Britain’s Press Association. “Athletes will start getting on planes soon and decisions will have to be made. We need new levels of reassurance.”

Australian discus world champion Dani Samuels withdrew from the games Tuesday, citing concerns over health and security, according to her manager, Hayden Knowles. England’s Phillips Idowu also said he won’t defend his triple jump title in New Delhi because of fears for his safety. He explained on Twitter that he has children, and “my safety is more important to them than a medal.”

Commonwealth Games Scotland said the team’s living area was “unsafe and unfit for human habitation.” Australia’s chef de mission, retired marathon runner Steve Moneghetti, said Indian organizers “have got two days to do what’s probably going to take about two weeks.”

Commonwealth Games Canada director of sport Scott Stevenson said housing facilities were not “anything like what was promised.”

Although no one has said they will pull out, New Zealand team manager Dave Currie had some of the strongest words for organizers.

“If the village is not ready and athletes can’t come, obviously the implications of that are that (the event) is not going to happen,” Currie told New Zealand radio network newstalkZB.

Swimming New Zealand’s high-performance manager Jan Cameron said in a radio interview that swimming federations had already discussed the prospect of the games being canceled and were prepared to act quickly to stage an international meet.

The chaos has severely dented India’s hopes of using the games as a springboard for a bid to host the Olympics in 2020 or 2024.

The International Olympic Committee carries out more rigorous and frequent inspections of host cities to make sure that construction deadlines are met. The process has been tightened further since the delays that dogged preparations for the 2004 Athens Olympics.

The games in India are only the third to be staged outside Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Kingston, Jamaica held the 1966 edition, then known as the British Empire and Commonwealth Games, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was the only Asian city to host the event in 1998.

New Delhi, India’s capital and home to more than 12 million people, was chosen to host the 19th edition of the Commonwealth Games in November 2003, beating out Hamilton, Ontario. Between then and 2008, the country did little to prepare.

Organizing committee secretary general Lalit Bhanot said the situation at the village was normal.

“All games face such problems and they will be resolved before the athletes come in,” Bhanot said. “These are not going to affect the games in any way as all venues are ready to host the games.”

Even Hooper called the problems “fixable.”

He said he would not speculate on whether the games would take place, adding: “The games start on the third of October and everything that has to be done must be done.”

Hooper said newspaper reports of human excrement around the village were true. The BBC, the games’ biggest and most influential broadcaster, has detailed the troubles on its website and called the state of the village “shocking.”

“This is a very serious matter and it needs the attention of the government of India to deploy whatever resources are necessary to fix and address it,” Hooper said. “A massive deep clean is required and it needs to be done.”

Aside from the bridge collapse and the unfinished construction, the buildup to the games has been plagued by poor ticket sales and monsoons. Organizers said last month that only 50,000 tickets had been sold, out of 2.3 million available.

Two weeks ago, the Indian capital was hit by an outbreak of dengue fever, and heavy rains have contributed both to the problem of the mosquito-borne virus and floods. Although the government played down the threat of dengue fever, doctors in New Delhi’s private clinics said they were inundated with dengue patients and accused the government of vastly understating the situation.

The stagnant water of the Yamuna River next to the athletes’ village certainly hasn’t quelled fears of infection for visiting teams.

In August, organizing committee treasurer Anil Khanna quit after allegations that his son’s firm was awarded a contract to lay synthetic surfaces at a tennis stadium for the games. Khanna denied the allegations, saying he had not started at the organizing committee when the contract was awarded. The organizing committee’s joint director, T.S. Darbari, was fired a week earlier at the request of India’s sports ministry for alleged corruption during the Queen’s Baton Relay launching ceremony in London.

Security in the city was also increased after unidentified gunmen wounded two tourists Sunday. An Islamic militant group took responsibility for the shooting.

Because of all the troubles, British bookmaker William Hill has begun to take bets on whether the games will go ahead. The company began the day offering 5-1 odds that the event would be canceled, then lowered them to 4-1 after the bridge collapse.

AP Sports Writer Rob Harris in London and Steve McMorran in Wellington, New Zealand, contributed to this report.

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