Sunday, September 26, 2010

India Pushes Games Efforts as Teams Arrive

Athletes who have arrived here for the Commonwealth Games began training for the start of play in one week despite continuing unease over housing and security arrangements, while the event's top official said he hopes India "learned a great lesson" from its lack of preparation.

Mike Fennell, president of the U.K.-based Commonwealth Games Federation that supervises arrangements made by host nations, said India has ramped up its efforts considerably in recent days to clean up and prepare Games facilities following complaints from foreign sports officials over hygiene and safety, especially at the Games Village apartments.

"This should have been done before, yes," he said in a Saturday news conference. "But now we're concentrating on getting it right." He said progress has been made but "it's not over yet."

Mr. Fennell said all 71 countries and territories in the British Commonwealth are sending teams to India. Some countries had been threatening to withdraw in recent days if the condition of Games facilities didn't improve but received assurances from Indian and federation officials that problems were being addressed urgently.

A contingent of 59 athletes and officials from Scotland arrived Sunday and checked into the Games Village, along with 46 players and support staff from Wales, spokeswomen for those teams said.

Stephen Soi, manager of the Kenyan delegation, which also arrived Sunday, said the team found dust and construction debris in its rooms. "There has been considerable improvement after we complained the rooms for our players need cleaning," he said, adding that the modern apartments are otherwise "very good."

South Africa's envoy for the Games, Harris Mbulelo Mejeke, told reporters a snake was found in one of the rooms set aside for the country's athletes, who haven't arrived yet. "If snakes are found, we can't ask our teams to stay there," he said, according to Press Trust of India. "That was a threat to the lives of our athletes. Very disappointing."

Forty-seven English hockey and lawn bowls players arrived Friday and are staying at a hotel until their team managers deem the village suitable for habitation. After a flurry of news reports about bed mattresses with footprints, toilets without water and street dogs wandering about the complex, some athletes have lowered their expectations.

"It's not going to be beautiful to look at," said Barry Middleton, captain of the English hockey squad. "But we'll get used to it after a while."

Mr. Middleton said he and several other English players were in India in March for an international hockey tournament, and knew what to expect. But first-timers have been shocked at the level of security around them, with gun-wielding army and police officers out in full force in the streets. At normal sporting events "we can get out and see places and have some down time to just relax a little," he said. "But here, we're allowed out only in groups, so we end up sticking in the hotel." Still, he said, the team is excited to be in India and is looking forward to the competition.

Simon Mantell, a forward on the England hockey team, said players are being extremely careful about food and snacks to avoid the nasty stomach bugs popularly known as "Delhi belly." The hotel chef is preparing special meals on request, and athletes are carrying hand sanitizers wherever they go. "We're very careful to make sure hygiene is at the utmost," he said.

India's Games Organizing Committee Chairman, Suresh Kalmadi, has been under fire domestically and abroad for mismanaging the event. On Saturday he first took some blame but also said he isn't responsible for shoddy construction and the mess at the Games Village because various government agencies took too long to build and turn over venues to the Organizing Committee.

"We have taken in the venues a little late, and that's where the problems start," he said. After months of saying repeatedly that these will be "the best Games ever," Mr. Kalmadi was noticeably chastened at the news conference, noting only that the Games would be "good."

The Games have been plagued by construction accidents, fears of a terrorist strike after two tourists were shot in Delhi's old city and health concerns over the spread of dengue fever in Delhi. Now they're also running into a notorious Indian roadblock: bureaucratic paperwork. As security tightens at the last minute, many Games employees and volunteers are struggling to get the credentials they need to enter venues.

Dennis Meredith, an Australian consultant who is helping to organize the hockey tournament, said even ground staff like those who carry buckets of ice onto the field aren't being allowed in. "We're having massive problems with accreditation," he said. "What's going on here is crazy."

Other last-minute problems are cropping up, like unfinished practice facilities for some sports. A wrestling practice gym near Delhi University in the north of the city is still under heavy construction and can't be used yet, according to a Games official there. Nearby, the rugby practice field is in decent shape but players don't have showers and changing rooms.

In New Delhi, the chaos surrounding the Games has become a hot, if depressing topic at local shops and restaurants. At Café Turtle in central Delhi's Khan Market, locals said they were happy about some changes in the city, like improved roads, but many were furious at the government's mismanagement of the event and said Mr. Kalmadi should be held accountable.

"If it was any other country, they would have fired the guy behind it—but they've done nothing," said Ashwin Chadha, 30 years old, who works at a private-equity firm.

Kanika Jain, a 21-year-old law student, was particularly insulted by an Indian sports official's suggestion last week that Indians can tolerate a lesser level of hygiene than foreigners. But in response to a friend who wanted to see India's Games fail so the country learns a lesson, she snapped back: "Are you mad? India has been defaced enough. Nothing at all good will come from the Games going badly."

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