A bridge too far? Race to keep Commonwealth Games on track

Andrew Buncombe,Robin Scott-Elliot
Wednesday 22 September 2010 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Delhi faces a desperate 48 hours to save its Commonwealth Games after angry teams denounced the athletes' village as "unfit for human habitation" and a bridge collapsed at the main stadium, injuring 23 construction workers.

With the first athletes set to arrive in India on Friday, the future of the Games was in the balance last night. Teams will meet today to discuss their participation, with some seriously considering withdrawing.

Top athletes continued an exodus yesterday. Those to pull out included Britain’s Olympic 400m hurdle champion Christine Ohuruogu and Lisa Dobriskey. The world and European triple jump champion Phillips Idowu was considering quitting the England team, said to be reluctant to travel to India because of the uncertainty. His manager, Ricky Sims, said: “He is considering his position and is taking a few days to think about it.”

The Games are scheduled to begin in 12 days time and have been dogged by security concerns, construction problems, a dengue epidemic, filthy accommodation and the withdrawal of a succession of star names, most notably the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt.

The developments are a growing embarrassment for India, which hoped to use the competition as a showcase for the country.

There is a suggestion from team bosses that once one country withdraws then others will quickly follow, leading to a drastically reduced Games or, in the worst-case scenario, the cancellation of the sub-continent’s largest ever sporting event.

Officials from the 71 competing nations are gathering in Delhi over the next couple of days, demanding assurances that the various complaints will somehow be addressed in time – with the veiled threat that they will otherwise cancel their athletes’ flights.

In a day of farce – an Indian government minister dismissed the collapse of the bridge as a “minor hiccup” – England, Scotland, New Zealand and Canada, condemned conditions at the athletes’ village and said that their athletes and officials would have to be accommodated in hotels until the apartment blocks were brought up to scratch, raising fresh security concerns.

Reports said around half the athletes’ apartments were dirty and unfinished, and that workers had even defecated on the floor of some of the buildings. One official with the Commonwealth Games Federation told The Independent that labourers had been living on site for months: “The rooms are unacceptably dirty.”

Some of the harshest condemnation came from Team Scotland with officials deriding the accommodation as “unsafe and unfit for human habitation”. Among the evidence apparently submitted by the Scottish delegation is a photograph of a dog defecating on a bed in the athletes’ village.

“Despite repeated promises, only slow progress has been made,” said the Scottisah team, “to the extent that there are grave concerns as to whether the village as a whole will meet the health and safety standards required.”

Canada’s director of sport, Scott Stevenson, said last night: “We are deeply concerned that the condition of the residence facilities is not at all what we expected. The current conditions are unacceptable.”

The head of the New Zealand team suggested the games might be called off. Dave Currie told radio network newstalkZB: “In the timeframe that is left, unless there is tremendous effort and energy and problem-solving ability to get it done, it’s going to be extremely hard to get across the line.

“If the village is not ready and athletes can’t come, obviously the implications of that are that [the event] is not going to happen. I think they are in severe difficulties.”

Some of the smaller teams are considering withdrawing. David Harry, chef de mission of the 43-strong Guernsey team, said: “The next two days are vital. The monsoon caused real problems and you do have some sympathy, but then again they should not have left themselves in this position. There is a possibility that we will pull out.”

Alan Cross, secretary of the Jersey Commonwealth Games Association, said: “We have to make a decision in the next 24 hours whether to take part or not. There is a risk we will not. It seems very likely that the accommodation will not be ready in time. If the first big team pulls out then others may follow. We are very, very unhappy and disappointed. [In the future] members will be very reluctant to vote for cities from developing countries again which is a real shame.”

Chris Jenkins, the Welsh chef de mission, said: “A lot can be done in a short space of time but the clock is ticking.”

The first athletes from Britain are scheduled to fly out tomorrow night. England’s lawn bowlers and the hockey teams will be the first to depart. England’s 170 athletes and swimmers will be based in a holding camp in Doha before flying in shortly before their individual events.

The England team still intend to compete according to Craig Hunter, the chef de mission, but fear "time is beginning to run out." Hunter added:"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. Athletes will start getting on planes soon and decisions will have to be made. We need new levels of reassurance."

Mike Hooper, chief executive of the Commonwealth Games Federation, the international organisation which oversees the games, said organisers in India had not lived up to promises on delivery dates.

When asked whether the federation would take up its concerns with senior levels in the Indian establishment, a clearly angry Mr Hooper said it was already in direct talks with cabinet ministers. “The conditions continued to be appalling and so we felt the matter needed to be elevated. That is why our chairman spoke to top Indian government officials,” he said.

India had hoped that the games would represent an opportunity to show-off to the world a new, dynamic country that was throwing off the shackles of poverty and seeking to play the role of a global power. It is estimated the budget for the event has increased 18-fold from its original estimate and will eventually total around $6bn.

This was money that some elements within the Indian establishment believed would be well spent if Delhi hosted an event that could be compared to the widely-lauded Beijing Olympics of 2008. But Delhi’s preparations have been persistently hit by allegations of corruption, fraud, mismanagement and a dangerously high level of hubris among senior officials. Many ordinary people believe the games will now be nothing less than a national disgrace.

Of pressing concern to officials now is whether any national teams decide to pull our or whether more high-profile competitors individually opt not to participate. A number of leading athletes had pulled out in the weeks leading up to the games and yesterday Australian discus thrower Dani Samuels announced she would not be taking part. Ms Samuels said her decision had been based on health and safety grounds. The decision by last year’s world champion, followed an incident in Delhi’s Old City on Sunday when two gunmen shot at a bus of Taiwanese tourists, injuring two.

A spokesman for the games’ Indian organising committee, Lalit Bhanot, even claimed that concerns about cleanliness were based on differing standards of hygiene. Asked by an Indian journalist about the comments of the foreign teams, he said: “For us and for you it is clean. But they have a different standard of cleanliness. It is a matter of difference in perception.”

Randhir Singh, a vice-president of the organising committee, said: “We still have two days for the teams to come and the situation will be under control. Twenty four hours is a long time and we will organise it.”

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