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

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.

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."

The monsoon season has lasted longer than expected, calling into question India's choice of October for the event. "Elections, marriages and sporting events - we all know in India that these are best held in the month of November," after the rains, said M.S. Gill, India's sports minister.

Officials hope for a night without rain so they can finish work. Workers at the main stadium received letters Tuesday saying they would have to work seven days a week for more than 11 hours a day, a violation of labor laws.

"The only legacy of the Games would be the realization that we are not a modern nation," said a high-ranking consultant to the Games' organizing committee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his comments would jeopardize his job.

Part of the ceiling at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, the Games' main venue, collapsed Wednesday, a day after a footbridge near the stadium crashed down, injuring 27 construction workers, six critically.

Also on Wednesday, several star athletes - including England's world champion triple jumper Phillips Idowu - pulled out of the Games after hearing about the conditions at the athletes' village.

Security concerns had risen Sunday when gunmen fired on a tourist bus at the city's historic mosque, wounding two visitors. The gunmen remain at large.

"It's enough to have to worry about performing, but to worry where you sleep and walk is another thing," said Dani Samuels of Australia, a world champion discus thrower who withdrew from competition this week.

The troubles extended to the event's theme song. A.R. Rahman, a national hero since he wrote the Oscar-winning "Jai Ho" for the film "Slumdog Millionaire," was paid $1 million to compose a song. But critics said it lacked the energy of Shakira's "Waka Waka," the World Cup anthem.

"A double whammy of embarrassment and humiliation," the Indian Express newspaper wrote after the bridge collapse and the reports about the athletes' village. "Games India's Shame," read the front page of the Times of India.

In an effort to rescue the event, federation President Mike Fennell arrived Thursday to meet with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whose office took over the city's preparations last month.

Defenders of India's effort say the setbacks are normal growing pains for a rising nation that will soon surprise the world and show it can pull off a successful international sporting event. They point to several projects that were completed on time. A new airport terminal has received rave reviews, as has a clean and speedy subway.

"What the Olympic Games did for Beijing, the Commonwealth Games will do for Delhi. It will become a world-class city," said Suresh Kalmadi, president of the organizing committee. "India is the flavor of the season. We want to show that Delhi can be a great sporting hub."

Many Indians have complained about the cost of hosting the Games, with estimates ranging from $3 billion to more than $10 billion. In 2003, India said it would spend less than $100 million. There have also been countless charges of corruption and bribes, which the prime minister's office said it is investigating.

After weeks of uproar on the streets and in Parliament, the government acknowledged last month that more than $130 million allocated for poverty reduction programs had been diverted to projects related to the Games.

"Financially, the Games are a major fiasco," said Norris Pritam, an Indian sports journalist who has covered the Olympics and the Asian Games. "It has damaged India's reputation, especially abroad. My main worry is that the world will be afraid to put their money in India."

During an official tour of the flagship stadium last week, Kalmadi proclaimed it "100 percent ready," even as metal clanged near him. "This is just last-minute polishing and a little bit of cleaning going on" to keep the workers occupied, he said over the noise. "Otherwise, what will they do?"

waxe@washpost.com lakshmir@washpost.com

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