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As Commonwealth Games loom, 'unfit' athletes' village adds to India's problems

The spotlight finally turned to sports at the Commonwealth Games, where 71 nations have gathered to compete for 272 gold medals

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By Emily Wax and Rama Lakshmi
Friday, September 24, 2010; 7:22 PM

IN NEW DELHI The Commonwealth Games were supposed to be India's grand coming-out party, an audition for a potential Olympic bid and a chance to show off its rising status as a major power and serious rival to China.

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But for all of India's high hopes, the Games have become a source of national shame.

Fraud allegations, construction delays, budget overruns and security concerns have plagued the Games for months. Then a series of incidents this week - including a bridge collapse and descriptions of the athletes' living quarters as filthy - added to India's troubles.

Even the Games' theme song was deemed disappointing.

Instead of looking scrubbed and polished, roads in the capital are still dug up, piles of rubble hiding unfinished work in what has become a symbol of the gaps between India's aspirations and the realities on the ground.

More than 7,000 athletes from 71 nations of the former British empire are supposed to arrive here by Friday for the Oct. 3-14 sporting event. But some teams have announced plans to withdraw, and New Zealand and Canada joined Scotland on Thursday in taking a wait-and-see approach.

"The Games are officially a disaster. The people of India feel dejected. Instead of boosting our profile, we are now objects of pity around the world," said Boria Majumdar, a sports historian who has written a national bestseller about the Games. "We have lost our chance at an Olympic bid for 2020. Who will trust India now?"

The centerpiece of the opening ceremony - a $12 million helium balloon - is being hastily rejiggered because of an equipment malfunction, an official said. A smaller inner balloon, fitted with devices to project images of 5,000 years of Indian culture and India's economic rise, burst in torrential rains and lightning.

"Now it is just a big, expensive balloon," the official sighed.

Adding to the headaches, this year's monsoon rains have been the worst in decades, and dengue fever, spread by mosquitoes, has killed five people and sickened 2,500 in the capital. India's health minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, said pools of dirty water around construction sites "have become a breeding place for mosquitoes."

The health minister for the Delhi state government announced in August that the army would be called in to remove stagnant water from the athletes' village. But officials, worried that the army's presence would create panic, decided against the plan.

On Wednesday, officials reversed that decision, saying that army and air force troops were desperately needed to pump water out of the village, which the chief executive of the Commonwealth Games Federation called "unfit for human habitation."


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