Athletics: Murky waters leave Russian hosts with red faces: Embarrassment in St Petersburg as swimming pool delay threatens to undermine showcase event

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The Independent Online
THE Goodwill Games was in danger of getting off to an embarrassing belly flop of a start in St Petersburg yesterday, as the showcase opening swimming event was put back a day after problems with the pool's filtration system threatened to present the swimmers with the unusual prospect of brown - or even green - water to dive into.

It was just the news that Jack Kelly, the Games president, did not want to hear - for this is the first major sporting event in Russia since the demise of the old Soviet Union, and large sums of money have been spent in the attempt to make it a success.

Critics inside and outside the country have questioned the level of spending, especially on the swimming facilities, in a city swamped with economic problems. Many of the venues for the Games have undergone extensive rehabilitation - but none more so than the SKA pool.

Russia has spent 150 billion rubles ( pounds 50m) on the Games, mostly on rehabilitation - still frantically being completed by swarms of workmen - of the 11 sites, which will see more than 2,000 athletes from 55 countries taking part. But there are major worries about whether people will actually turn up to watch.

Today's opening ceremony at the 70,000 capacity Kirov Stadium, which will be hosted by the Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, is a virtual sell-out, but rising crime in St Petersburg is reportedly scaring off the tourists crucial to the success of the event. The organisers have admitted that under half of the 530,000 tickets have been sold.

These are the third Goodwill Games, the event being dreamed up by the American media tycoon, Ted Turner, as a non-political forum for the world's best athletes. The previous two, in Moscow in 1986 and Seattle in 1990, made a combined loss of more than pounds 45m, so Kelly's statement that St Petersburg officials no longer hope to break even on the event looks at the moment like rank optimism.

Officials have put back the start of the swimming to tomorrow, fearing, understandably, that a brown pool would not look good on television.

But the US team was not reassured, spokesman Charlie Snyder saying: 'There's no way they could swim in the pool the way it currently is. Two days ago when I went to the pool there for the first time the water was a brown- black colour. This time it was green.'

The highlight of the games is likely to be the former Olympic champion, Carl Lewis, in the 100 metres on Monday night. The race was initially billed as the hottest event of the year, but that claim has now been somewhat tarnished by the withdrawal of the Olympic and world champion, Linford Christie, who has damaged a hamstring.