No one but suspicious Australians are talking about it but China could be the ace up Sri Lanka’s sleeve in its bid for the 2018 Commonwealth Games (CWG).
The town of Hambantota, some 260 km south of Colombo, and Australia’s Gold Coast paid 60000 pounds and picked up the bidding documents for CWG 2018 earlier this year. The final bids have to be submitted by May 30, 2011 and the winner will be announced in on November 11 next year.
``We will put up a fighting challenge (against Gold Coast). Things are moving,’’ Keheliya Rambukwella, minister of mass media, told HT.
It would have to start moving fast because at present the hot, arid town only has an under-construction cricket stadium to talk of as sports infrastructure.
The beginning hasn’t been great. A plan to put up a stall at Ashok hotel in New Delhi to publicise the bid during the New Delhi games fell through because of lack of preparation.
But one advantage the town has that it is in President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s home district and he has grand plans to transform it into Lanka’s biggest city after Colombo.
The town is gradually rebuilding after the 2004 tsunami devastated it, killing nearly 6,000 people living there.
To my question whether Colombo will ask Beijing to chip in with building sports infrastructure in the town, Rambukwella said the help of all ``our friends will be solicited’’ for putting up the infrastructure.
With Beijing-Colombo current relations more snug than ever, China could even use its influence, say over African countries, to ensure that Sri Lanka wins the bid. And it is expected that if Hambantota wins, China will then gladly step in with its decades-long experience in ``stadium diplomacy’’.
It is already currently Sri Lanka’s largest donor and is building a $ 1.5 billion port on Hambantota’s coast.
China also helped Sri Lanka with arms and ammunition during the civil war without asking questions.
China has been building `friendship stadium’ across Africa; even a few cricket stadiums in the West Indies were built by Chinese companies. Since 2000, China has either built or is building at least 30 stadiums in African countries like Angola, Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania, Togo and Congo.
No one is more acutely aware of China’s deep pockets and the quiet diplomatic influence it might wield in favour of Sri Lanka than Australian officials like Gold Coast mayor Ron Clarke.
``China is supporting them and China has got lots of money to build new facilities…So if they want to call in their charge, then no matter how it appears on the surface, that would have an influence on votes (to decide the bid winner),’’ Clarke told the Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday.
``We’re respecting their bid – there’s always that question about what does that Chinese investment mean for the bid, but no one has answers to those questions,’’ Mark Peters, Gold Coast bid chief executive told the newspaper.
An email query to the Chinese embassy in Colombo about Beijing’s help for Sri Lanka’s bid didn’t get a response.
``Chinese companies could easily build 15 stadiums and the games village in Hambantota,’’ National Olympic Committee president Hemasiri Fernando said, adding that at least 30 to 40 stadiums and training venues would be required to host the games.
Employees of two Chinese companies – China Harbour Engineering Company and Sino-Hydro Corporation -- are stationed in the town to build the port. Which also means construction equipment needed for big projects is already available there.
The `Hambantota 2018’ website says the town is in the ``grip’’ of a massive development. With China’s hold over developments in the region, it can afford to claim so.