Commonwealth Games: Canada and New Zealand delay departures
This article titled “Commonwealth Games: Canada and New Zealand delay departures” was written by Adam Gabbatt, Owen Gibson, and Jason Burke in Delhi, for guardian.co.uk on Thursday 23rd September 2010 08.24 UTC
Pressure is mounting on officials in Delhi with the president of the Commonwealth Games due to arrive for crisis talks with the Indian prime minister and a growing number of countries demanding reassurances before they travel.
Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) president Mike Fennell will seek guarantees from Manmohan Singh that India is capable of turning around its shambolic preparation for the Games in time for the opening ceremony on 3 October, following the collapse of a bridge and a venue roof and criticism of the athletes’ village as being “unfit for human occupation”.
The Scottish, Canadian and New Zealand teams have delayed their departures to India because of the “filthy” conditions, while the chairman of Commonwealth Games England, Sir Andrew Foster, said this morning that the English team was “reserving its position”.
The Scottish team delayed the first batch of their 192 athletes, comprising 41 boxers, rugby players, wrestlers and support staff. The Wales team set a deadline of last night to receive reassurances from organisers that the athletes’ village and venues would be “fit for purpose” and plan to discuss the issue further today.
The first batch of 22 English athletes will arrive in Delhi today as planned, although Foster this morning appeared to cast doubt on whether they will actually compete.
Asked by Radio 4’s Today programme if he thought the Games would go ahead, he said: “We believe it is just about do-able if they throw lots of resources at it and are very focused.”
The mood in India has grown darker in recent days as the extent of the problems facing the event has become clear. A poll in the local Hindustan Times newspaper showed 68% of locals in Delhi felt the Commonwealth Games had become a source of shame. Two-thirds blamed the organising committee and only 40% said they would watch the event.
With floodwater rising around the £150m Games village and an epidemic of Dengue fever, officials admitted that strikes and absenteeism had meant there was no proper cleaning of the accommodation where 6,500 athletes are to be staying.
The Times of India summed up the mood with the front-page headline: “C’wealth Games India’s Shame.”
“Irretrievable damage has been done to the country’s reputation,” said Norris Pritam, an Indian journalist who has covered many Olympics and Asian games. “India can still pull it off, but I was more hopeful a few weeks ago.”
The problems have taken on a political dimension, with opposition MPs lambasting “government incompetence”. Singh, 77, has been heavily criticised for allowing the problems to develop without intervening.
As well as Singh, Fennell will also be meeting top officials charged with organising the event. Indian security officials scrambled yesterday to brief journalists on the measures being put in place – ranging from “helicopter-borne snipers” to the deployment of up to 80,000 police officers.
Mike Hooper, CGF’s chief executive, said he would be seeking to draw a line under the preparations and put pressure on the government to avoid more international embarrassment.
“There is a problem, it needs fixing. I’m not into pointing fingers. They have the next couple of days to put things right,” said Hooper. He said that while venues were built to a high standard, and he had no concerns over security, the sorry state of the village was a huge worry.
New Zealand announced yesterday it was also delaying travel for its team by at least two days, while the Australian government said it was sending experts to assess the hygiene conditions in the village.
A mass walkout of nations remains an option, with the “point of no return” seen as early next week. The main competing countries would be likely to act in concert and are in constant communication with one another.
Michael Cavanagh, chairman of Commonwealth Games Scotland, said any decision would be a joint one and insisted that any knock-on effects for the Glasgow Games in 2014 would not be a factor.
“In terms of withdrawal we don’t see this as simply a Team Scotland decision,” he said. “Any decision to withdraw we would see as being a collective decision among the countries who are already there and already concerned.”
He added: “We can’t allow ourselves to be influenced by thoughts of how it may impact on 2014, not when we have something as important as the safety of our athletes to consider.”
Although England had been allocated one of the more habitable of the 34 blocks in the athletes’ village, the English chef de mission Craig Hunter told the Guardian there had “not been much progress” in ensuring that it was fit for habitation in the week he had been there.
“I’m trying to remain eternally optimistic. But at some point we will reach the point of no return and that is when we will have to decide.”
While organisers insisted there were only “minor issues”, Hunter said that was patently not the case.
The beleaguered Delhi chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, played down the problems and accused the media of damaging India’s image. “Something may be dripping, some tile may collapse, doesn’t mean the entire Games are bad,” she told reporters.
It is now known that the accident on Tuesday, in which 27 were injured when a bridge connecting the athletes’ carpark to the main Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium collapsed, was caused when a metal pin worked loose detaching the main structure from its suspension cables.
Five workers are in a critical condition, several with spinal injuries. Most of the injured were contracted labourers from rural areas. Campaigners say dozens of workers have been killed and hundreds injured in a succession of accidents at Games venues.
The world discus champion, Dani Samuels, of Australia pulled out of the Games because of security and health concerns, as did England’s world triple jump champion, Phillips Idowu. A host of other big name athletes, including Usain Bolt and Sir Chris Hoy, had already withdrawn for a variety of reasons.
The foreign secretary, William Hague, said: “I hope these problems can be dealt with. We want them sorted out as rapidly as possible. Let’s encourage the organisers to put these things right so the athletes can take part as they should be doing.”
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