Thursday, September 30, 2010

Commonwealth Games chief executive Hooper burned in effigy in New Delhi

Protesters took to the streets of the Indian capital Thursday for a second straight day of demonstrations, demanding a boycott of the Commonwealth Games that begin this weekend.

A coalition of more than 20 groups calling itself the "Anti-Commonwealth Games Front" demanded a boycott of the Queen's baton relay and the Games, due to open here Sunday. They were holding placards reading "boycott the poverty games" and "we want schools, not stadiums."

About 100 people demonstrated 500 metres from the organizing committee's office in central Delhi.

On Wednesday, Indian activists, upset with what they claimed were racist remarks by Commonwealth Games Federation chief executive Mike Hooper, burned an effigy of the New Zealander and shouted slogans.

Carrying signs that said "Racist Hooper Go Back," the crowd was upset that Hooper, who has lived as an official observer in Delhi for more than two years, had reportedly made remarks blaming the Indian population for poor preparation that included incomplete venues and unlivable conditions at the athletes' village when some delegations began arriving last week. Hooper has denied making any offensive remarks, and has the backing of Commonwealth Games Federation president Mike Fennell.

With more than 100,000 police on duty in New Delhi as security for the Games, the protests were kept under control. And the scale of the security was likely to deter any large-scale repercussions in the capital of an Indian court decision in Lucknow, a 14-hour drive away. The Allahabad High Court ruled Thursday that a disputed holy site in the town of Ayodhya should be split between the Hindu and Muslim communities.

Conflict over the site set off bloody communal riots in the past and India has sent hundreds of thousands of troops into the streets to keep order.

But the protests in new Delhi focused on the Games, with critics saying India is a poor country and cannot afford it. Costs for building infrastructure and venues for the event have blown out from original estimates of U$100 million in 2003 to reportedly more than US$3 billion.

"This is an anti-poor, anti-labourer, anti-public drama of 10 to 15 days that will make people struggle for years," said Jawahar Singh, who heads a group working for the cause of slum dwellers.

"Many people have lost their homes, many have lost their livelihoods. These games are against those very workers who have built the city," he said in Hindi.

According to a World Bank estimate, more than 800 million Indians survive at less than US$2 a day.

Sunil Kumar, a youth leader, said no one was bothered about the fact that labourers were being exploited for the games, including the workers injured last week when a pedestrian bridge being constructed near the main stadium collapsed.

"Two of the 27 labourers injured in the bridge collapse ... are still in coma," Kumar said. "One of those two (had) worked for 21 hours at a stretch before he got injured, according to the log maintained at the site."

While construction workers and cleaning staff attempted to put the finishing touches on venues and the athletes village, New Delhi was hit by its seventh road collapse this week, two of them near Games venues. The resulting large pot holes caused massive traffic jams.

Despite all the problems, dramatic cost overruns and the long delays in building venues, organizing committee chairman Suresh Kalmadi said he had not lost hope of bringing the Olympics to India.

"The biggest legacy (of the Commonwealth Games) is Olympics," said Kalmadi, who heads the Indian Olympic Association. "Cricket is the most popular sport in our country but it is played by just 10 countries. Olympics has all sports. We have to ensure that Olympics come up. This is our opportunity and CWG will help."

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge was due to visit some games sites Friday and will remain in Delhi for Sunday's opening ceremonies when Prince Charles will represent the Queen and officially open the event which runs until Oct. 14.

Meanwhile, Australia has lost two more members of its Games squad, with reigning discus gold medallist Scott Martin among two athletics competitors forced to pull out due to injury.

Women's discus world champion Dani Samuels was among three who withdrew last week citing concerns over security and health.

Steve Hooker, the pole vault Olympic and world champion from Australia, says he can't understand why some of the high-profile athletes that have pulled out.

Jamaican sprinters Usain Bolt, the world and Olympic 100- and 200-metre champion, and Asafa Powell will not be in New Delhi.

Other notable absentees include South African runner Caster Semenya and English world heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis.

"It's a personal decision for everyone and I think everyone puts their own value on different competitions, but this is a competition I value very highly," Hooker said. "I personally can't understand a lot of the dropouts because this is something that I've been looking forward to a lot.

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