Commonwealth Games on a knife-edge

The South Africa Sports Confederations and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) has expressed concerns about the staging of the Commonwealth Games ahead of the South African team’s departure on Sunday for New Delhi.

Tubby Reddy, the Sascoc chief executive officer, confirmed fears that India was not ready to host the Games, scheduled to run from October 3 to 14. “We have been monitoring the situation on a month-to-month basis and found that the facilities are currently not appropriate to stage the Games,” Reddy said this week.

He said his delegation, which included the chef de mission, medical doctor and security agents, had earlier been assured by New Delhi that the country would be ready for the October 3 opening ceremony before the end of August. But when the South African inspection team visited the city this month, work on the athletics villages was not finished.

“I have been told that only 18 of the 34 blocks that will house athletes during the Games have been sufficiently finished,” said Reddy.

He said he was particularly worried about the health and sanitation facilities at the village because they would be used by many people. “The area has been hit by monsoon rains. It is now full of water and rubble, and we are concerned that our athletes could contract mosquito-related dengue fever.

“We are going to meet the [South African] minister of sport before the Sunday departure date for guidance on the way forward as only the government can call off the trip. We will be guided by the government,” said Reddy.

South Africa intends to send almost 200 athletes to the Games.

Monsoon rains and the threat of dengue fever are not the only dark clouds hanging over the Games that India said would be world class when construction began in earnest earlier this year. Security in the country is also a major concern. Last week gunmen on a motorbike opened fire with a submachine gun on a tourist bus outside New Delhi and injured two tourists. A militant group called the Indian Mujahideen claimed responsibility for the attack and threatened to target the Games, the Press Trust of India said.

An email sent by the group to the Press Trust of India reads in part: “We are warning you. If you have the guts, then organise the Commonwealth Games — we know that preparations are on full swing. Be prepared — we are also making preparations — the participants in the Games will be responsible for the outcome.”

There was more bad publicity for the Games on Tuesday when a pedestrian suspension bridge for athletes collapsed, injuring 27 workers. It was to be an important link between the athlete’s car park and Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, the venue of the opening ceremony. As a result, an Australian discus champion and a British triple jumper have pulled out, citing safety and security concerns.

Indian media reports say the disaster has increased safety concerns over the structures being prepared in a mad rush to meet the opening-ceremony deadline.

A day after the bridge collapsed, The Times of India reported that another embarrassment had hit the troubled Games — the ceiling of the weightlifting arena at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium also collapsed. According to the reports, the ceiling fell “directly over the field of play”.

South Africa has been joined by Britain, Australia, Scotland and Canada in expressing their concerns about the preparations for the 19th Commonwealth Games.

Gloomy picture
Jason Burke of the Guardian, who is in New Delhi, painted a gloomy picture of the preparations and the effect the delays have had on officials who have visited the athletes’ village.

“Officials arriving ahead of overseas teams have found rooms in the £150-million Games village on the outskirts of this city of 17-million people to be unsafe and unfit for human habitation,” Burke wrote.

He confirmed that monsoon rain had flooded some rooms. In others showers, air conditioning and electrical sockets were not working and toilets were described as “filthy”.

Burke reported that Craig Hunter, England’s chef de mission, said he was calling for safety assurances from the organisers.

“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,” he told the Press Association. “Athletes will start getting on planes soon and decisions will have to be made. We need new levels of reassurance.”

Some even doubted whether the Games could go ahead. New Zealand’s chef de mission, Dave Currie, said: “The way things are looking, it’s not up to scratch. The reality is that if the village is not ready athletes can’t come. The implications are that it’s not going to happen.”

Michael Fennell, the Commonwealth Games Federation president, described the two-week event as “seriously compromised”.

His words came as little surprise to observers. The list of problems has lengthened over recent weeks to include corruption scandals, huge cost overruns and shoddy construction.

International sports events routinely attract negative press in the run-up, such as the World Cup in South Africa earlier this year, only for the warnings to come to nothing. But on this occasion it seems likely that many projects will simply not be finished.

But Reddy was confident that Team South Africa would give a good account of itself if the Games did go ahead.

“We have put in place selection criteria that are much more stringent than the ones we used in the past. We have opted for quality rather than quantity in picking sportspersons that will represent the country,” he said.

In 2006, South Africa took 320 athletes to the Melbourne Games. A farewell banquet dinner will be held for the team on Saturday evening.

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