Thursday, September 23, 2010

India scrambles to save Commonwealth Games

Indian officials scrambled Thursday to salvage the rapidly approaching Commonwealth Games as a growing number of competitors delayed their arrival to allow organizers time to finish their frantic preparations.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held an emergency meeting Thursday night with his sports minister and other top officials to assess the state of preparations for the event, which is to start in little more than a week. They did not give details on what was discussed. Delhi's Lieutenant Governor Tejinder Khanna said Singh "was informed that every effort is being made to prepare the games facilities and the village to the expected standards."

Commonwealth Games Organizing Committee chairman Suresh Kalmadi, whose organizing team has been mired in graft allegations, was not asked to attend the meeting.

The games were meant to showcase India's emergence as a regional powerhouse. But long delays in getting facilities ready and a list of scandals have turned them into an embarrassment.

A poll in the Hindustan Times newspaper Thursday showed 68 percent of surveyed New Delhi residents were ashamed of the games, which bring together athletes from the 71 countries and territories of the former British empire and are held every four years. The poll of 523 people had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Organizers have struggled with an outbreak of dengue fever, the collapse of a footbridge leading to the main stadium and security fears after the Sunday shooting of two tourists outside one of the city's top attractions. A Muslim militant group took responsibility for the shooting.

Since concerns over the athletes' village _ including excrement in rooms and problems with plumbing, wiring and furnishings _ were raised earlier this week, India has committed major resources to cleaning it up, with Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit taking charge of the operation, the games' chief executive, Mike Hooper, told The Associated Press.

"There has been improvement each day," he said. "There's more to do."

The village, which is meant to house more than 7,000 athletes and officials, opened Thursday with 138 Indian athletes and sports officials moving in, organizers said.

Hooper said some Australian officials also had moved in.

Kalmadi said most of the problems with the village had been resolved and the games would turn out to be a success.

"We will look after everybody well, and they will have a good time," he said.

But many national delegations remained concerned.

The New Zealand team announced Thursday it was joining Scotland and Canada in delaying its arrival in New Delhi because of the poor condition of the accommodations. England and Australia have also expressed concern about the village.

"It is tremendously disappointing," New Zealand Olympic Committee President Mike Stanley said, adding that the travel changes would put a strain on preparations for athletes. "We know how hard this must be for athletes and we're continuing to push ... for an urgent resolution."

The Australian government on Thursday said it was sending experts to assess hygienic conditions in the village and has upgraded its travel advice to alert tourists to possible construction "deficiencies" after the bridge collapsed and part of a drop ceiling at a games venue caved in.

Australian media reported that Federal Police officers would travel with the team to provide extra security, while Prime Minister Julia Gillard confirmed only that "We have boosted the number of officials we have in New Delhi and we have others on standby."

Commonwealth Games Federation President Mike Fennell arrived in India late Thursday on an emergency visit and planned to meet with top Indian officials to discuss the problems Friday.

So far, four athletes _ including three world champions _ have said they won't attend because of health or safety concerns, but no national teams have pulled out.

"Everybody wants to make this work, and everyone is working together to make this happen," Hooper said.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key told Parliament that the nation's athletes will participate in the games unless security or health standards are badly compromised and a decision could be made by Friday.

"Obviously they'll be cognizant of what's happening with other countries, but it's certainly my preference for them to be able to attend the games if they possibly can," he said.

New Delhi has been a frenzy of activity in recent weeks, as the city struggles to ready itself for the games, which are to begin Oct. 3. The city has had seven years to prepare, though very little work was done until 2008.

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