Games athletes eye medals as clean-up race nears end

Hundreds of athletes arrived in New Delhi for the scandal-hit Commonwealth Games on Tuesday, setting their sights on winning medals rather than concerns over filthy accommodation, a dengue fever epidemic and security.

Authorities are rushing to have accommodation and venues ready for about 8 000 athletes and officials in time for the October 3 opening. Several teams were temporarily put up in luxury hotels in the capital.

India had long pledged the Commonwealth Games, an event held every four years for mainly former British colonies, would rival the successful 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.

But the chaos surrounding the event, in which 71 nations are taking part, has been a major embarrassment for the government and exposes how far India still needs to go when it comes to pulling off major projects that helped make China an economic powerhouse.

“Our athletes are happy and focused on the competition. Other countries still have some issues with the arrangement and we are working with the organisers to get it sorted out,” said Scotland team spokesperson Katriona Bush.

More teams arrived on Tuesday, including members of the New Zealand, South African and Australian teams.

India has faced criticism from the Commonwealth Games Federation, national teams, governments and from within India over its poor handling of what the world’s largest democracy had hoped would be its coming out on the world stage.

Instead numerous top athletes have pulled out, mainly citing health and security concerns. Several national teams, including England, New Zealand and Canada, postponed their arrivals until they were sure the venues and accommodation were adequate.

Images of dirty toilets, bathrooms and bedrooms and stray dogs at the Games Village, beggars living outside the venues and workers urinating in public have been deeply embarrassing.

New Zealand chef de mission Dave Currie said the accommodation was not five star, “but it’s clean and tidy”.

To add injury to insult, a footbridge near the main stadium to a parking lot collapsed, hurting 27 workers. An attack on foreign tourists by suspected militants a week ago also rattled athletes and organisers.

Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit said on Monday the Village, where 8 000 athletes will stay, would be completed as soon as possble, but she declined to give an exact date.

Blame game
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Congress party-led government have been sharply criticised for failing to give the Games the due attention expected of such a large international event. Congress has largely focused on its rural voters.

The government has been seen as aloof and only when the first serious signs of trouble at the Games became public a month ago did Singh take personal charge.

Suresh Kalmadi, chairperson of the organising committee in Delhi, told India’s CNN IBN television that the Commonwealth’s western countries had conspired to prevent India from hosting a successful event.

“Definitely, that’s part of it,” he told CNN IBN, adding he would talk more about this after the Games were over.

Dikshit, a member of the ruling Congress party, blamed builders and a local development agency.

NDTV broadcast reported the Games would be a tourist disaster. Tour operators are now expecting 10 000 visitors, down from a government estimate of 100 000 visitors.

A snake was found in the room of a South African athlete and about 150 flats are still unhygienic, despite the weekend efforts of an army of workers who have failed to address an example of the infrastructure and other problems endemic to India.

More than 20 athletes, including world champion sprinter Usain Bolt, have pulled out for various reasons, not all of them due to health and security fears.

Organisers say the absence of Bolt, an Olympic gold-medalist, and other high-profile athletes would not diminish the standards of competitions such as track and field.

The Commonwealth Games, first held in Hamilton, Canada, in 1930, are the most well known — and sometimes the only known — activity of the Commonwealth, according to a survey released in March by the Royal Commonwealth Society.

Analysts say if the Delhi Games turn out to be a fiasco, it may be hard to persuade sponsors, television companies, media and athletes that the Games deserve their attention in the future. – Reuters

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