Monday, January 18, 2010

‘Western snobs’ blamed for Delhi security fears

The president of the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) has blamed mounting concerns about Delhi’s preparations on Western snobbery.

“I don’t think there is any doubt about that whatsoever,” Mike Fennell said. “If a problem occurs in India then it is viewed differently to the same problem in another country. There are certain perceptions.”

Fennell has been forced on to the front foot after it was reported that senior Whitehall officials had said there was “virtually no chance” that an England team would be sent to the Commonwealth Games in October because of the security risk in Delhi. Fennell warned that if that proved to be the case there might be repercussions for the Olympic Games in London in 2012.

“I wouldn’t want to go down that road, but some people will be thinking that way,” he said. “A country that wants to host an event should think how other people will then view the security risks in their own country. The fact is there is always a security risk. Everybody has to make their own decisions but if you don’t go [to Delhi] I suggest you don’t travel anywhere in the world.”

The road to Delhi has been pitted with problems. Last month Fennell said news of further construction delays was “distressing”, with the main Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium and the swimming complex the primary concerns. Sheila Dikshit, the chief minister of Delhi, hardly assuaged those fears by saying that she was praying the Games would be a success, while there has been an ugly spat in which Suresh Kalmadi, the Organising Committee chairman, described Mike Hooper, the CGF chief executive, as “useless” and an “impediment”.

Fennell said: “That was damaging to the extent that certain things that should have been done were delayed because of personality clashes, but we have overcome that now.” He also sounded a more upbeat note regarding the construction work and said that there was no contingency plan to move the Games to another country.

“Not at the moment,” he said. “Having a contingency like that is virtually impossible at such short notice. There would be a huge cost. The contingency is to get Delhi right.”

Fennell said he was “reasonably confident” that Delhi would be ready and pointed out that stories about missed deadlines and tardy workers were part of the preamble to any Games. “The main stadium and the swimming pool should be ready in time for the end of March, early April,” he said. “That still gives us time to run test events.”

The CGF Co-ordination Commission said last month that some venues would not be handed over until June, and Fennell said: “We monitor the situation very closely and we can go very late. We’ve had Games in the past, like the Olympics in Athens, where people were very nervous right up until a month before. The Commonwealth Games in Manchester had problems right up to the end but they turned out to be excellent. Organising a multisport Games is a very complex issue. It’s all systems go and we want everything signed off by the end of August.”

Some will think that Fennell is being unduly optimistic. Last October the bitter row between Indian sports chiefs and the CGF reached its nadir amid demands that Hooper be repatriated. In turn, when asked whether Delhi was unprepared, Hooper replied: “I think that is the understatement of the year.” Controversially, Fennell then proposed creating an independent Technical Review Committee, but later scrapped the idea, leading to claims in the Indian media that he was “flip-flopping”.

Now there is a more united front with all sides rejecting fears about security. The gun attack on the Togo football team on their way to the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola highlighted sport’s vulnerability to terrorism, but while admitting that India was a volatile part of the world, Fennell was scathing of England’s withdrawal from the World Badminton Championships in Hyderabad last August because of a perceived threat. “That was a major mistake,” he said. “The tournament was a success. The only people who lost were the athletes who were prevented from participating.” Fennell said it would be a setback if England did not send a team to Delhi, but added: “The Games would proceed and the bigger blow would be to the English athletes.”

The CGF has been working with Intelligent Risks, a leading global security firm, since 2005, but another security consultant, Lloyd Bromfield, said last week that athletes would be at risk and one scenario was “a team of Osamas running around with hand grenades”. Intelligent Risks said Bromfield had no knowledge of its detailed plans.

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