The next 24 hours will be critical to whether the Commonwealth Games go on as planned or not and, more importantly, to how the world will view India thereafter.
Though the first batch of England’s athletes is coming, the rest will follow — only if India manages to clean up its act and the Games Village, literally.
On Wednesday, hours after England’s world champion triple jumper Phillips Idowu said he would skip next month’s Games on safety grounds, Caroline Searle, Commonwealth Games England’s (CGE) Chief Press Officer, told HT from London that their first contingent was leaving for India on Thursday.
“Our first batch of 22 athletes will be in Delhi on Friday and will head straight to the Games Village,” said Searle, in a day of speculation on whether the Games were doomed because of a potential England-Scotland-Wales led boycott.
Yet, even as British foreign secretary William Hague offered last-minute help, Sir Andrew Foster, chairman of CGE, put in a stern warning. “All options are being kept open,” he said, even as Scotland and Canada delayed their athletes’ departures.
Foster’s message was clear — the ball was now in India’s court. “We still need further assurances from the Indian authorities. Whilst we are giving a general message that we want to be there and lots of athletes want to participate, it is a very small window for a final positive decision to be made.”
But Wednesday morning began badly. Even as ‘official’ dog-catchers descended on the Village to remove errant, bed-hopping strays, and foreign delegates --- not trusting India’s ability to clean up the Village --- scrubbed up to scrub down their athletes’ accommodation themselves, there was trouble elsewhere.
A group of tiles in the false ceiling of the weightlifting arena, adjacent to the Nehru stadium, collapsed, and two internal balloons intended to provide stability to the huge Aerostat balloon, a Rs. 50-crore 80m by 40m, 12m helium showpiece placed at the stadium, were made unstable by the wind and malfunctioned.
But, as officials blithely maintained, these were minor glitches in the grand scheme of things. “Look at the positives,” an Organising Committee official told HT. “The entire ceiling didn’t collapse and there was no one standing below as the weightlifters get in Thursday.”
Mike Hooper, the Commonwealth Games Federation’s chief executive, told HT while there was “a lot of work yet to be done at the Village”, he didn’t want to “speculate on cancellations”. “Our primary aim is to hold the Games and we are focused on that,” said Hooper.
But Organising Committee secretary-general Lalit Bhanot emphatically stated the Village, earlier dubbed “unfit for human habitation” by Scottish officials, would be ready to greet its first athletes by Thursday night.
“The rooms are okay and some external issues will be sorted out. There will be no pullout. These will be the biggest Games ever. The current controversies will have no impact on the Games or on the result of the Games. This is not what you will remember once the Games begin.”
But others aren’t quite as cheery. For many, these Games, touted to be the event that would put Delhi and India on the world map, have done so, but on the map of ignominy.
Headlines around the world, even in countries that are not part of the Commonwealth, highlighted the foot-overbridge incident as symptomatic of the larger Indian malaise of ineptitude and corruption, even as public confidence in the government’s ability to pull off the event handed to India seven years ago plummeted.
Idowu used microblogging site Twitter to justify his stand: “All the press about bridges collapsing and 23-plus people being hurt, floods and uninhabitable living conditions, getting my daughter ready for school this morning and seeing all of that put me off. I can’t afford to risk my safety in the slightest... it was a tough choice to make but I made it for my children.”
Closer home, India swimmer Rehan Poncha tweeted in response to reports of dogs sleeping on Village beds: “hopefully my room at the village will be ready, without dogs sitting to greet me on my bed :)”
Meanwhile, Commonwealth Games Federation president Mike Fennell is expected in the city Thursday evening. Hooper confirmed he had asked for a meeting with the Prime Minister. “We just wanted to brief them about the seriousness of the issue,” said Hooper.
By the day’s end, according to sources, the one major task left in the Village (apart from reportedly getting tadpoles out of the pool), was to get the pavements in order. “In their hurry to get things ready, the lawns were made higher than the pavements. Now, because of the rain, the mud from the lawn has made the pavements slick.”
But, the OC would take heart from British sports minister Hugh Robertson’s words: “'There is nothing that I have seen or heard that has suggested that these are problems that cannot be sorted out… “