After setbacks, Commonwealth Games off to strong start in India

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 3, 2010; 10:36 PM

NEW DELHI - With an epic opening ceremony that included thunderous wedding bands, elegant yoga poses and a grand tribute to founding father Mohandas K. Gandhi, India launched the 2010 Commonwealth Games on Sunday with the hope that the event's nightmarish run-up plagued with blunders and problems could be put behind them.

Indian President Pratibha Patil and Britain's Prince Charles jointly opened the Games in a remodeled 60,000-seat Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, where 71 nations have gathered to compete in 17 sports with 272 gold medals up for grabs. Classical Indian dancers, yogic gurus, tabla prodigies, sitar players, and more than 7,000 cultural singers and dancers hosted the three-hour opening ceremony.

Outside, the streets of the capital were turned into a heavily-guarded fortress, with 80,000 police and 17,000 paramilitary troops patrolling every corner. Rooftop snipers and helicopters hovered over the city protecting 41 Games-related sites, the airport and the village where athletes are staying. Markets and malls were closed, and New Delhi's normally vibrant, crowded streets were sanitized and silent. Athletes arrived at the opening ceremony in bulletproof vans.

"Seven years and the glare of the media and the aspirations of a rising superpower. There have been delays and challenges but we have risen to the challenges, and we can do it," said Suresh Kalmadi, the embattled president of the Commonwealth Games Organizing Committee, who was booed during his welcome speech.

The jeering turned to cheers, however, when Kalmadi announced, "Our dream is coming true and India's big moment is finally here. India is ready."

India was selected to host the games - a quadrennial competition for nations of the former British Empire - seven years ago. The event was seen both here and abroad as India's audition for a future Olympic bid. It was a chance for the nation to measure up against and even surpass China's staging of the 2008 Summer Olympics. The games also were seen as a coming-out party for a rising India, a chance to celebrate the economic progress of the world's largest democracy.

But a string of setbacks overshadowed the Games and instead focused the world's attention on India's growing pains. There were charges of cronyism and nepotism along with shoddy construction, road work delays, a dengue fever outbreak - blamed on pools of stagnant water left around unfinished sites - and a suspected militant gun attack on two foreign tourists. The gunmen are still at large.

The cost of the games, estimated to be as high as $6 billion or 60 times the original estimate, also angered many Indians.

Then, in what seemed like a comedy of errors, a large rainbow-shaped footbridge near the main stadium collapsed Sept. 20, injuring 27 people. The same day, the deputy chief of the Games called the athletes' village filthy and "uninhabitable."

Several nations threatened to pull out, and some of the world's top athletes said they didn't want to risk their health and were backing out. (On Sunday, the athletes' village reported its first case of the mosquito-borne dengue fever. But the athlete, a member of India's lawn bowling team who has been in Delhi since March, might have caught the disease from outside the village.)

Sports commentators said they wished Indian athletes had received more attention, instead of the focus being on the mismanagement of the games.

Indian swimmers, tennis players and wrestlers often are overshadowed in a country obsessed with cricket. Despite India's rising profile, the country of 1.2 billion has only one individual gold medal.

"We will celebrate today. But we will celebrate the athletes, not the organization," said Harsha Bhogle, an Indian sports commentator, who hopes young Indian athletes will be inspired by the games. "This is a fantastic opportunity to show how much India respects athletes. Despite the troubles, that could be a great example for the next Indian generation."

Many Indians said they also were also disappointed that the games had not revitalized poor parts of New Delhi as the event did for Manchester in 2001, said Boria Majumdar, an Indian sports historian and the author of the book "The Sellotape Legacy: Delhi and the Commonwealth Games."

"India knows how to put on a grand party. But at the end of the day, this was really a lost opportunity for India's capital," Majumdar said. "At its best, world sports should be a force for helping cities prosper."

Away from the razzmatazz of the opening ceremony, there was an exodus of residents from the capital. The government closed schools so the games would not be hampered by traffic. But the break from classes turned into an opportunity for families to get out of the city.

In August, travel agencies began advertising packages such as "The Great Games Escape," "Commonwealth Bonanza" and "Games Getaway," urging Delhi-ites to get out of the city.

Still on Sunday, anxiety gave way to anticipation that India could prove everyone wrong by pulling off the biggest sporting event in the country's history and erasing any bad memories if all goes smoothly through the Oct. 14 closing ceremony.

The opening ceremony paid special tribute to Gandhi, with a message of non-violence. In an emotional moment, India's nemesis and neighbor Pakistan received supportive cheers when its athletes walked through the stadium during the flag ceremony. "This is what sports is about," an announcer said, "forgiveness and friendship."

Correspondent Rama Lakshmi in New Delhi contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company