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Going Mad in New Delhi: The Commonwealth Games in Crisis

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Monday, 27 September 2010


Everyone has an opinion on it, and few seem to be positive. But the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi is on life support and there are many happy to turn off the switch.  In the face of this, New Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit has specialised in the understatement.  “There are some problems”, but they were far from “insurmountable”. 

The Indian Foreign Minister SM Krishna has decided to be hyperbolic, claiming that these games would be “one of the most successful” in the history of the competition (The Economic Times, Sep 23).

A terrorist attack has been cited as a genuine one (aren’t they all, according to the wisdom of the authorities?), but such arguments are standard fare in the modern age of mass sporting spectacles.  To single out India as a special case ignores the obvious fact that an attack might happen on any other equivalent event held in another country.

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For all the talk about terrorism, the security threats posed by collapsing foot bridges and roofs seem far more cogent.  Yet the argument of chaos and infrastructural problems is far from a new thing.  Order, good timing and planning are rarely features of such events. 

Australia’s famed swimmer Kieran Perkins could still remember the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, when “they were still paving the village when we arrived.”  Ditto with Atlanta, where “roads were still being laid and venues were still being put together” (ABC PM, Sep 22). 

Searching questions were being asked prior to the Athens Olympic Games over specific organisational issues that threatened to delay, if not banish, the Greek effort to oblivion.  Rowers were angered by the inappropriate choice of venue, claiming it was more fit for surfers than serious aficionados of the oar. 

Teams went missing for hours, kept on coaches whose drivers could not locate their hotels.  And a Ukrainian archery coach found himself bitten by a stray dog, one of a 60,000 strong population. (New York Times, Aug 17, 2003

This has made the Commonwealth Games England President Dame Kelly Holmes optimistic.  “I compare it to the Athens Olympics when they were still planting trees on the day it opened.  I don’t think it can get any worse than that.” (Press Trust of India, Sep 22)

There is little doubt that a crisis, of whatever proportions, is afoot.  Timing is everything, and the sporting representatives who chose to arrive a bit too early found a “filthy athlete’s village – where excrement was found in some of the rooms.” (Metro, Sep 23) Good things come to those who wait, though waiting is not something sports personalities or officials do very well.

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The authorities have also been blessed by rotten luck, with unseasonable weather from a rather stubborn monsoon producing flooding in the athlete’s village and a potential outbreak of dengue fever.  Stagnant pools in the city are an inviting prospect for industrious mosquitoes.  Athletes will be terrified and running for their various pills and syringes. 

Debates have also turned to the issue of relevance.  For one thing, the cost of such an event tends to be astronomical, and certainly far in excess of what can be recouped.  Athens continues to lick its wounds after its Olympic efforts of 2004.  A good argument might well be made for the abolition of such events altogether.  But it should be unsurprising that such a fixture has been shaded by misconceptions and diminishing respect for the “Commonwealth” as such. 

Promoters of the Commonwealth cite its diverse membership “that has come to encompass every region, religion and race on the planet, something no other organisation apart from the UN can boast”. (The Independent, Nov 26, 2009)  Dissenters point to the Commonwealth as something of a consolation price for Britain’s post-empire blues, a retirement home of diminished colonial expectations.  In time, the home might well be closed, and such contenders for membership as Sudan and Yemen might be left in the political cold.

The seriousness of the occasion has made the Indian government launch what has effectively been termed a “last-ditch effort” to save the games. (Times of India, Sep 24)  Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has put the hard word on sports minister M S Gill, urban development minister Jaipal Reddy and Dikshit.  The Delhi government is now fully involved, deploying a team of 40 officers to oversee the effort.  Private companies have been brought in to clean the village.  Teams are busy checking such items as carpentry, housekeeping, cleaning, replacement of consumables and lifts (Times of India, Sep 24). 

Should these games commence, they are likely to be a diminished affair, with its bright plumage clipped.  Top athletes, citing concern for their children and families, would sooner be safe than sporty.  We would have seen the best theatre off stage, with its chaos, colour and controversy.  Those who do intend to participate will see their medal prospects dramatically improve with the exit of the more fancied names.  May their efforts be rewarded.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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