India’s Commonwealth Games woes raise concern about major sports events in developing nations

By Tim Sullivan, AP
Wednesday, September 22, 2010

2 teams delay leaving for troubled games in India

NEW DELHI — The idea sounded good: Put international sports festivals like the Commonwealth Games in countries such as India to broaden the stage for international competitions and encourage economic development.

It had been done before, with the Olympics in China two years ago and with regional events like the Pan American Games in South America and Cuba in the 1980s and ’90s.

This time, it is backfiring. Instead of showing the world that it is a modern, global power, India is being castigated for its lack of preparation.

With barely a week to go before the games begin, frantic last-minute preparations are verging on chaos, international sports officials are furious and the games have become an international embarrassment that could threaten plans for major sporting events in other developing nations.

Scotland and Canada said Wednesday they would delay their departures to New Delhi because of the unfinished athletes’ village. Meanwhile, an official with the New Zealand swimming team said international swimming federations could quickly stage an alternative meet if the games were canceled.

The Times of India summed it up with a front-page headline: “C’wealth Games India’s Shame.”

“Irretrievable damage has been done to the country’s reputation,” said Norris Pritam, an Indian journalist who has covered many Olympics and Asian Games. “India can still pull it off, but I was more hopeful a few weeks ago.”

Commonwealth Games Federation President Mike Fennell headed to New Delhi, seeking emergency talks with the prime minister to discuss the situation, the games’ chief executive, Mike Hooper, said Wednesday.

Games organizers have faced a slew of troubles recently, including heavy rains, a citywide outbreak of dengue fever, fears over security after the shooting of two tourists near one of the city’s top attractions, and the collapse of a pedestrian bridge at the main stadium, injuring 27 construction workers, five critically.

The athletes’ village — a symbolic heart of the games — was still unfinished Wednesday, the eve of its scheduled opening. The home for more than 7,000 athletes and officials from 71 countries and territories has been called “unfit for human habitation.”

Andrew Foster, head of Commonwealth Games England, said Wednesday “the next 24 to 48 hours is the critical time” to determine if the standards of the athletes’ village can be raised.

So far, four athletes — including three world champions — have said they won’t attend because of health or safety concerns.

Indian government officials insisted they would prove the critics wrong.

Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna, in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, told the BBC that the games will be “one of the most successful that the Commonwealth has undertaken.” He blamed “the prolonged monsoon” for the problems.

New Delhi, chosen over the Canadian city of Hamilton, Ontario, as host, has had seven years to prepare, though very little was done until 2008. Armies of workers — often rural villagers making just a few dollars a day — have been deployed across the city in recent weeks to get it ready.

Indian officials have long dismissed international worries over the slow preparations, even though they were more than a year behind schedule. At one point, the sports minister joked that the games were like a stereotypical big chaotic Indian wedding — and that after lots of last-minute efforts everything would turn out fine.

But in recent weeks, as the many problems became more apparent, the Indian media have turned increasingly critical, questioning why the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hadn’t done more to reign in mismanagement.

Taking the event to India carried inherent risks.

The trend in recent years among major international sports bodies, such as the International Olympic Committee, is for what organizers call “universality” — spreading major competitions around the world as much as possible, including to developing nations where such events have rarely been held.

Last year, the IOC awarded the 2016 Summer Olympics to Rio de Janeiro, taking the games to South America for the first time. Africa is now the only continent that hasn’t had an Olympics. But South Africa’s triumphant hosting of this year’s World Cup despite widespread concerns has made it a strong contender for the 2020 Olympics.

“It’s part of a desire to keep expanding the range of countries that can host these events,” senior Canadian IOC member Dick Pound told The Associated Press. “You know when you do that the risks are much higher. You just hope the sense of national importance for the host country will allow it to focus on what resources are required and get it done. That said, the risks remain.”

So what happened in India?

There’s no simple answer. Certainly some blame lies with the central government, which only recently began keeping a close watch on preparations. The Indian media is also rife with allegations of widespread corruption.

And some is pure bad luck: New Delhi has had its heaviest monsoons in decades this year.

“There’s an awful lot of talent in India,” Pound said. “There’s no inherent reason why they could not make a national effort to pull it together better than they have — or seem to have.”

He also noted that the Commonwealth, unlike the IOC, is at heart a political grouping, so there is pressure to hold some games away from the traditional hosts of Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

“You can’t have the same old four or five white countries doing these games all the time,” he said.

The IOC and FIFA both have committees which carry out regular and rigorous inspections of preparations for the Olympics and World Cup, something which helps avoid the type of chaos engulfing the games in India.

The IOC had to put heavy pressure on Athens ahead of the 2004 Athens Olympics after chronic construction delays and political wrangling put those games at risk.

“We saw what happened in Athens,” Pound said. “There’s a limit to what you can do if you don’t have the national will or there’s a domestic conflict between different groups or political parties.”

Pound said Kingston, Jamaica, proved when it hosted the Commonwealth Games in 1966 that developing countries can pull it off with the necessary zeal.

The message to India and others, he said, is: “If we’re going to do this and occupy a share of the world’s stage, we’ve got to do it properly. If we’re not committed to it, we shouldn’t do it.”

India’s troubles have severely dented its hopes of bidding for the 2020 or 2024 Olympics.

“I’m sure it’s put that back by at least a decade,” Pound said.

The economic impact of staging major global sports events can weigh heavily on host cities and countries.

The Indian government initially pegged the cost of the Commonwealth Games at less than $100 million in 2003, but the figure has skyrocketed, with estimates ranging from $3 billion to more than $10 billion.

Unlike the Olympics or World Cup, the Commonwealth Games do not attract major international sponsors or TV rights fees.

Although China was able to use the Beijing Olympics to highlight how far it has come after decades of isolation, India is falling behind in that quest.

“When you look at China’s very monolithic, dictatorial approach, they have a machine where they can make things happen in a very deterministic manner, whereas India is a colorful and chaotic democracy and sometimes things don’t quite go as planned,” said Gunjan Bagla, founder of Amritt, Inc., a California consulting firm that helps Western companies do business in Asia.

But the games remain deeply important to India’s national pride, making it highly unlikely the government will call them off.

“We’re absolutely prepared,” Cabinet Secretary K.M. Chandrasekhar, who is in charge of monitoring the readiness for Singh, told CNN-IBN television Wednesday.

Sullivan reported from New Delhi, Wilson from London. Associated Press writers Ravi Nessman and C. Rajshekhar Rao in New Delhi and Chris Lehourites in London contributed to this report.

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