India savors its moment to shine

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
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 4, 2010

IN 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 event-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 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 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. 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, an outbreak of dengue fever - 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, thought 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. "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.

Still on Sunday, anxiety gave way to anticipation that India could prove everyone wrong by pulling off the biggest sporting event in its history 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 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.


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