NEW DELHI (Reuters) - More nations delayed their departure for the Commonwealth Games in India as organizers raced on Thursday to tackle security and health problems that have already prompted several top athletes to pull out.
New Zealand joined Canada and Scotland in opting for a delay due to poor athletes’ accommodation at the New Delhi Games village, with heavy monsoon rains and a dengue epidemic adding to images of filthy apartments and stray dogs roaming around.
But Kenya said it would send a 240-strong team after receiving security assurances from India, officials said, although several of the nation’s top athletes have withdrawn due to illness or fatigue. Wales also gave its team the all-clear.
The Games, held every four years for mostly former British colonies, are estimated to have cost $3-6 billion.
India had hoped to use them to display its growing global economic and political clout, rivaling China. Instead, they have become a major embarrassment for the government, which is trying to fend off criticism of shoddy construction, inadequate security and unfit accommodation.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard highlighted security fears, saying athletes should decide for themselves whether to attend. Suspected militants shot and wounded two foreign visitors in the Delhi on Sunday.
“There is obviously widespread concern about the Commonwealth Games,” Gillard told reporters in Canberra.
However, Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) CEO Mike Hooper said he was hopeful the Games would get off the ground, given a new sense of urgency among Indian officials. “We hope between now and October 14 we see successful celebration of the Games,” Hooper told television channel NDTV.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reviewed preparations with senior ministers, an official in his office said, in what was seen as a last-ditch effort to avoid teams from withdrawing.
But he was not scheduled to meet CGF president Michael Fennell, who requested an emergency meeting.
Suresh Kalmadi, the chairman of the organizing committee, said no team would pull out from the Games. “I can assure you that security is well in place. Now if some people have their own conception (of security), I can’t help,” he told reporters.
In a sign of desperation, the federal government ordered the organizing committee to hand over management of the Games Village, which will house 6,500 athletes, to the government.
By contrast, preparations for November’s Asian Games in China, which held a successful Olympics in 2008, are on track, with organizers in Guangzhou handing the athletes’ village over to the Asian Games authorities for sign-off earlier this week.
Many sporting events have hit trouble before opening, such as the 2004 Athens Olympics, and some of Delhi’s infrastructure projects, including a new metro and airport, have won praise.
But polls in newspapers show that a vast majority of Indians are ashamed. Singh has been accused of failing to recognize that events like the Games carry huge international prestige. Much of the Congress-led government remains focused on its rural vote.
“I genuinely feel sorry for what has happened and would like to apologize not only on my behalf and on behalf of the organizing committee, but for everyone connected,” A.K. Mattoo, Organizing Committee Secretary General, told NDTV. “This is a collective failure.”
Organizers have promised a prompt clean up. Teams start arriving this weekend for the October 3 official start and so far no one has said the Games will be canceled or delayed.
New Zealand chef de mission Dave Currie said organizers had failed to admit to problems. “Every time we raised an issue (we were told) ‘yes that will be fixed tomorrow’, but you know clearly that it won’t be fixed tomorrow,” he said. “And they weren’t.”
World discus champion Dani Samuels of Australia has pulled out of the Games because of security and health concerns, as did England’s world triple jump champion Phillips Idowu. Four other champions have quit due to various reasons, including injuries.
Triple Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt of Jamaica is the highest profile athlete to skip the event.
A dengue epidemic has also spread through the Indian capital, sending thousands of people to hospital. Nevertheless Games organizers were upbeat. “We had a meeting with all the chefs de missions today and they are all much happier than before,” Kalmadi said. “Everything will be all right today.”
Scotland and Canada had already announced they were delaying sending athletes to New Delhi. The New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) told their athletes to delay their arrival until at least next Tuesday, just five days before the Games are due to open.
Kenya was more upbeat. “Kenyans should not join a team of pessimists but go and bring glory to our country. As a strong member of the Commonwealth, Kenya should show solidarity with India by honoring the Games,” Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka said. However, several leading Kenyan athletes have all pulled out citing illness or fatigue.
Images of stray dogs, stagnant water, workers urinating in public and human feces found at the unfinished athletes’ village in central Delhi have overshadowed the successes of the Games — the main stadium and other sporting venues.
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, injuring 27 workers.
Additional reporting by Amlan Chakraborty and C.J. Kuncheria in NEW DELHI, Greg Stutchbury in WELLINGTON and Rob Taylor in CANBERRA; Editing by David Stamp