NEW DELHI (Reuters) - With nearly 6,000 athletes already in Delhi and hundreds more streaming in by the day, the Indian capital was putting the finishing touches to preparations for the biggest ever Commonwealth Games on Saturday.
The 12-day sports gathering for mostly former British colonies was in crisis a week ago but organizers seemed to have put the worst of the rash of preparatory problems behind them on the eve of the opening ceremony.
The late scramble by the India government to salvage the $6 billion event might still not be enough to erase the public relations disaster of the last few weeks but the 19th Commonwealth Games can at least boast the most participants.
“The fact that we will have the participation of 6,800 athletes and team officials from all 71 nations and territories indicates the love they have for India,” said chief organizer Suresh Kalmadi.
“We are on course to deliver the Games successfully and smoothly.”
The late arriving athletes will land in a city in the grip of huge security operation aimed at ensuring the safety of the athletes and spectators, 60,000 of whom will pack the refurbished Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Sunday.
Some 100,000 security personnel have been deployed around the city and MiG fighters and helicopter gunships will be on standby.
The Delhi government has also ordered shops and commercial establishments to remain closed on Sunday but the city’s police chief YS Dadwal said people would still be able to get around.
“It’s huge task and we have canceled leave for all policemen,” he told reporters. “It’s a moment of great challenge for Delhi Police.
“We have not asked people to stay home. We told them, ‘Plan your movement because of limited road space during the Games. Reach venues well in advance and be prepared to stand in queues.’”
Britain’s Prince Charles arrived in Delhi on Saturday to attend the opening ceremony on behalf of his mother, Queen Elizabeth, the head of the Commonwealth.
The Delhi Games, intended to showcase India’s growing financial clout with a display of soft power, had threatened to become a national embarrassment before the government intervened.
The organizers had seven years to prepare but the shoddy construction and filthy accommodation forced some of the teams to either postpone their arrival or put up in city hotels.
The director of sport for the Canadian team, Scott Stevenson, said conditions in the athletes’ village had now improved.
“We wanted it to get to adequate class as we say, which is where we are,” he said. “So people are comfortable, they are getting their sleep, eating well and it’s easy to move around. It is a comfortable village to be around.”
The organizers renovated most of the existing stadiums and some of the venues, including hockey and cycling stadiums, have been hailed as world class.
The string of top athletes who have skipped the games for fatigue, injury, health or security concerns have taken some of the luster off the sporting competition, which starts on Monday.
Strong swimming teams from Australia, England, South Africa and Canada have bucked the trend, though, and the action at the Dr SP Mukherjee Aquatic Complex will be among the highlights of the October 3-14 event.
“It is very different from the swimming world championships and in my view the only experience that beats competing at the Commonwealth Games is the Olympics,” said South Africa’s 2004 Olympic champion Roland Schoeman.
Corruption charges, an attack by suspected militants that wounded two tourists, a dengue fever epidemic, a filthy Games Village and the collapse of a footbridge have tarnished India’s image, questioning its ability to host events of such magnitude.
Additional reporting by Patrick Johnston, Amlan Chakraborty and Sudipto Ganguly, editing by Pritha Sarkar