India battles to save scandal-hit Commonwealth Games

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 and Canada delayed sending athletes to New Delhi while Wales sought guarantees from organisers that the venues and athletes’ village were safe. The New Zealand swimming team looked for a “Plan B” should the event be cancelled.

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.

Canadian archers Kevin Tataryn and Dietmar Trillus, who was considered a medal threat in the men’s compound bow, decided to withdraw anyway.

“What really concerns me the absolute most is the diseases that are running very rampant right now due to the monsoons, as well as the terrorism threats, which are apparently very, very real things,” Trillus told CBC.

“I’m not a young man, I’m 52 years old. “If I get sick from something like this, will I ever recover properly? We’re not talking about the common flu here.”

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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.

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 are due to begin arriving for the October 3 start.

India had hoped to use the $6 billion (3.8 billion pound) Games, held every four years for members of the former British Empire, as a display of its growing global economic and political clout rivalling China.

Instead, the Games have descended into farce with the threat of mass withdrawals from an event which is so far only showcasing Indian traveller-tale cliches of filth, chaos and corruption.

One Indian newspaper ran a headline “National Shame.”

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“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 organisers as they race to complete work.

Nobody was injured at the weightlifting venue.

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“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.

New Zealand’s swimming team left on Wednesday for Abu Dhabi, with an official saying another competition was in the pipeline if the Games were cancelled. Australian and Canadian squads are in Singapore and the British in Doha, suggesting another Asian meet could be hastily organised.


There have been reports of stray dogs, workers urinating in public and human faeces being found at the unfinished village where the athletes will live. A Reuters reporter said homeless people were living outside the main stadium.

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

Indian government officials say the problems, including the roof collapse on Wednesday, are mostly minor glitches.

“Let me assure you on behalf of the government of India and the people of India that we will see to it that the Commonwealth Games are conducted according to international standards, and the athletes who come to participate in these games will feel quite happy about their conditions,” Foreign Minister SM Krishna told the BBC.

But criticism is mounting even within India, where the country’s leadership is seen as out-of-touch.

The Games have also highlighted 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.

On a more positive note, sporting power Australia and New Zealand both backed the Games and many venues, including the main Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, have been praised as world-class.

“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.

Reporting by Reuters bureau in New Delhi; Writing by Alistair Scrutton, Paul de Bendern, Jon Bramley and Alan Baldwin; Editing by Ed Osmond