India battles to save scandal-hit Commonwealth Games

NEW DELHI Wed Sep 22, 2010 2:11pm EDT

1 of 6. Cranes work at the site of a pedestrian bridge that collapsed outside the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi September 21, 2010. A footbridge being built for the Commonwealth Games in India collapsed on Tuesday, injuring 27 people and highlighting the raft of problems that have so far blighted the event, meant to showcase the emerging global power.

Credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India scrambled against the clock to save the Commonwealth Games after big ticket athletes quit the showcase event and nations threatened to stay home unless authorities cleaned venues "unfit for human habitation."

Scotland delayed its departure to New Delhi and Wales gave organizers until later on Wednesday to guarantee that the venues and athletes' village are safe. The New Zealand swimming team is seeking a "Plan B" should the event be canceled.

Two high profile Kenyan athletes, citing injury and illness, pulled out and a South African sports boss made clear his team would consider following suit if there were any more major hitches.

"The safety and health of team South Africa are of paramount importance to us and if at any stage we feel that this is compromised then we will not hesitate to bring the team home," said chief executive of the South African Sports Confederation, Tubby Reddy.

Commonwealth Games Federation president Michael Fennell, who said the two-week event suffered from filthy conditions, will arrive on Thursday for a probable meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

In the next few days thousands of athletes will start arriving for the October 3 start.

India had hoped to use the $6 billion Games, held every four years for members of the former British Empire, as a display of its growing global economic and political clout rivaling China.

Instead, the Games have descended into farce with some countries giving organizers an ultimatum of a few days to get everything ready or face the prospect of national withdrawals from an event which is so far only showcasing Indian traveler-tale cliches of filth, chaos and corruption.

"Officials found that building works had fallen seriously behind schedule and that its allocated accommodation blocks were far from finished and in their view, unsafe and unfit for human habitation," Team Scotland said in a statement.

A portion of false ceiling in the weightlifting venue caved in on Wednesday, a day after the collapse of a footbridge by the main stadium injured 27 workers, highlighting the problems facing organizers as they race to complete work.

Nobody was injured at the weightlifting venue.

"There have been dogs roaming around the village, the apartments are filthy, there are piles of rubble and right now it's not fit to receive 6,500 athletes and officials," Michael Cavanagh, chairman of Commonwealth Games Scotland, told the BBC.

"National Shame" was the headline in one Indian newspaper.

New Zealand's swimming team left today for Abu Dhabi, with an official saying another competition was in the pipeline if the Games are canceled. Australian and Canadian squads are in Singapore and the British in Doha, suggesting another Asian meet could be hastily organized.

There have been reports of stray dogs, stagnant water, workers urinating in public, and human feces being found at the unfinished village where the athletes will live.

Stagnant pools of water, breeding grounds for dengue mosquitoes, lie around and a Reuters reporter said homeless people were living outside the main stadium.

Indian government officials say the problems, including the roof collapse on Wednesday, are mostly minor glitches and the Games will be a success.

But criticism is mounting even within India, where the country's leadership is seen as out-of-touch and having failed to understand what is expected of a nation which is not short of funds nor skilled labor to host a major sporting event.

It also highlights concerns about how India will effectively spend some $1.5 trillion on infrastructure over the next decade which is fundamental to managing fast economic growth and a growing population of 1.2 billion.

DENGUE EPIDEMIC, SECURITY LAPSES

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.

Six other champions including the Kenyans Janeth Jepkosgei and Luke Kibet, have quit for various reasons, including injuries, in the last 24 hours.

Jepkosgei, who was the 800 meters champion at the last Commonwealth Games, and 2007 world marathon champion Kibet, blamed illness and injury respectively.

"Sorry people, but I have children to think about. My safety is more important to them than a medal," Idowu had written on his Twitter feed.

Triple Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt of Jamaica is the highest profile athlete to skip the event.

An epidemic of Dengue, in part blamed on stagnant water around unfinished construction sites, has hit Delhi and thousands of people are being treated in hospital.

Many residents are fleeing Delhi during the Games, worried about security and traffic chaos.

Only days after two foreign visitors were shot and wounded by unknown assailants in Delhi, Australian TV broadcast how a reporter bought bomb making devices to smuggle through security points. Indian police denied he ever crossed a checkpoint.

Highlighting how the Games has become a political minefield for a government already reeling under high inflation, officials from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's office toured the village.

"The prime minister is of course extremely concerned," Cabinet Secretary K.M. Chandrasekhar, who is overseeing the preparations, told CNN-IBN.

So far 77-year-old Singh, who took charge of monitoring the preparations a month ago after criticism of missed deadlines, has remained silent, underscoring what critics say is his out-of-touch leadership.

Sporting power Australia backed the Commonwealth Games on Wednesday and many venues, including the main Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, have been praised as world-class.

Officials note that other events, such as the 2004 Athens Olympics, were dogged by problems but turned out fine.

However, Canada's Games team said it might delay the arrival of some of its athletes if adequate accommodation was not available.

New Zealand Olympic Committee officials have arrived in Delhi to inspect facilities and security.

"I think if the Commonwealth Games didn't go ahead, that could have significant implications for the future of the Commonwealth Games, and that's not something we'd like to see," New Zealand Prime Minister John Key told reporters.

Indian officials defended their record.

"Please try to understand ... They want certain standards of hygiene, they want certain standards of cleanliness, which may differ from my standard," said Lalit Bhanot, spokesman of the Delhi organizing committee.

(Reporting by Reuters bureau in New Delhi; Writing by Alistair Scrutton and Paul de Bendern and Jon Bramley; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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