Delhi could still pull off a win in race against time

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 September, 2010, 12:00am

The chief organiser of New Delhi's embattled Commonwealth Games has already secured a little niche in sporting history by invoking the show business line that it will all be 'all right on the [opening] night'. He will be remembered for that, whether chaotic preparations result in an organisational disaster or the hosts sort them out in time for the opening ceremony next weekend.

The organising committee may draw comfort from the fact that the best organised world or regional sports gatherings have not been free of worries that facilities will not be ready or up to scratch and that the hosts will be embarrassed on the international stage. Usually, most things that matter to competitors and spectators do turn out all right in the end. New Delhi, though, has gone close to being an exception to that rule. It has tested it to the limit with chronic construction delays involving allegations of corruption, security and health worries, and safety concerns about shoddy, rushed building work. Then the first athletes to arrive found that the Games village living quarters were in a filthy state unfit for human habitation. As a result, some countries have delayed the arrival of their teams and even raised doubts that the Games can go ahead.

Don't be surprised to see New Delhi snatch triumph from seemingly imminent disaster. The country's national prestige is on the line. Like Beijing's Olympics in 2008, there are hopes these Games, though a much smaller event, will project an emerging giant's new economic power on the international stage. Thankfully, Commonwealth Games Federation officials have seen signs of the necessary improvement in preparations over the last day or two.

Ironically, some of the blame for the chaos has been laid on the infrastructure development model that has served India so well. Tens of thousands of poor, unskilled rural workers were recruited to perform the heavy labour on construction of the Games facilities, just as they are to help build ports, airports, roads and so on. Sadly, amid growing urban prosperity they are paid little and often live in squalid conditions. This time the model has backfired, with workers seeking shelter from monsoon rains in the apartments they were building for 7,000 athletes plus officials, and leaving them trashed.

Human rights and labour activists have taken complaints about workers' conditions to the high court. This raises questions about wasteful spending by developing nations on grand image-building projects when they still have much to do to alleviate poverty, hunger, disease and unequal opportunity through real development.

If athletes from rich nations are not happy with the facilities that Indian athletes have to make do with, the country would have been no worse off without the Games. For most young Indians, just having access to decent sporting facilities will remain a dream. The money splurged on the Games would have been far better spent on making the dream begin to come true. That said, perhaps it is time to think about a new formula for some of these sporting events. They help spread their worthy ideals of fair competition and international friendship, but do they need to be so extravagant now that emerging nations are developing a taste for hosting them? The massive cost of effective security in the age of international terrorism and political activism has made them even more financially problematic.

New Delhi faces a race against time to get ready for the opening. It is to be hoped, for all concerned, that this final effort leads to a safe and successful Games.