India sprints to save Games reputation

But there are still sodden lawns, mosquito-infested water, stained walls and the threat of a cattle jam
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India yesterday officially unveiled to the world its athletes' village for the Commonwealth Games. Some of it was first class, some of it was adequate, and some of it was downright shoddy.

After enduring days of criticism from competing nations about the unacceptable standard of "filthy accommodation", Indian organisers yesterday invited official national delegates and the media to inspect the facilities, taste the food, try out a treadmill in the gym, and even test the comfort of the mattresses in the athletes' quarters. A number of those participating in the inspection were at best only partly satisfied.

Some roads remain pitted with deep potholes after weeks of heavy monsoon rains; many medical workers for the Games were reportedly still waiting for their passes; and north Indian farmers – who have long demanded they be officially listed as low caste to gain more government benefits – were threatening to bring chaos to the city on 3 October by flooding the roads with cattle.

Earlier in the day, Mike Fennell, head of the Commonwealth Games Federation, said there had been considerable improvements in the three or four days since teams voiced their concerns. "While it was very sad that much of this work had not been done before... the efforts are paying off." But he added: "There's still a lot of work to be done. It's not over yet."

Similar opinions could be heard among the delegates and journalists touring the complex, built on the flood plain of the sacred Yamuna river. After visiting the swimming-pool area, where one stagnant pool was covered in tiny mosquitoes, an official from Nigeria was unimpressed. Paving slabs were cracked and broken, and lawns soaked with water. "This is not up to international standards," she said.

One area brought broad, positive agreement – the large and spotless air-conditioned canteen serving food from around the world, where this reporter enjoyed a perfectly pleasant bowl of pasta with cheese sauce.

The same could not be said of the tower blocks for athletes' accommodation. In the block to be occupied by the Welsh team, the inside walls were covered in dirty fingerprints. In a bathroom, the ceiling showed water damage. Elsewhere, the outside walls of some of the new-build blocks were equally stained. There was mud where there was supposed to be grass, large areas of bare, shadeless concrete, and the air of an unloved housing estate.

But apparently there was worse that was not shown to all. The most senior diplomat at the Mauritius High Commission in Delhi could be heard bitterly complaining about the accommodation. Another Mauritian official said: "The rooms are just too dirty. Our athletes are arriving in the morning – where are they supposed to stay?"

Not everyone was having such a bad time. Michael Brownlee, a badminton player from the Falkland Islands, was happy. "I got here early so I could pick the best room," he said. And Subhajit Saha, the Indian Commonwealth gold-medallist at table tennis, said: "[The apartments are] very nice, very clean. The aesthetic is better than in Melbourne. There, there was only one toilet for five people."

British teams are expected to move in over the next couple of days. Caroline Searle, spokeswoman for the England team, said: "Large parts are world class... but there are still issues."

Indian officials are relieved that all 71 participating nations have decided to come to Delhi. Just a few days ago, there were fears of a mass cancellation. The collapse of a footbridge at the main stadium and its dismissal by officials as "a minor hiccup" did not help. Around 50 athletes have pulled out.

In the past couple of days, the highest levels of the country's establishment appear to have woken up to the battering India's image has been taking. Suresh Kalmadi, head of the Games' organising committee in India, was reportedly sidelined and Delhi's chief minister given responsibility for the athletes' village. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has held crisis meetings.

For India, the Games provide an occasion to show off a newly dynamic country where growth stands at more than 8 per cent and which seeks to rival China as a global power. It wants to make its case for greater recognition, including a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. In that respect, the Games may already have been a set-back. But at least the country's athletes have a chance to salvage the situation and India's image. And now, everyone just wants to get on with things.

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