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Athletes arrive for Commonwealth Games as India scrambles to clean up venues

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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Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 24, 2010; 8:04 PM

NEW DELHI - As officials scrambled to carry out a last-minute cleanup of venues for the Commonwealth Games and rescue India's sagging image as host, the first group of British athletes trickled into the Indian capital Friday.

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Mike Fennell, president of the Commonwealth Games Federation, said that "considerable improvements" had been made to the athletes' village, where dirty bathrooms and debris-filled, waterlogged corridors had drawn worldwide criticism.

"It is vital that all remedial work that has already started continues with the greatest urgency," Fennell said in New Delhi, which was enjoying a brief respite Friday from weeks of relentless rain. With nine days to go before the Games' opening on Oct. 3, hundreds of police officers patrolled the city's streets and dozens of police dogs sniffed around the stadiums.

The reports of unhygienic conditions at venues, together with allegations of corruption, the collapse of a footbridge and the crumbling of a stadium ceiling, have cast a shadow over the sporting extravaganza that was meant to be India's showcase event this year.

Although some countries, including Scotland and Canada, have delayed their teams' arrival, a batch of 61 athletes from England arrived in New Delhi as scheduled. But they chose to stay in a five-star hotel rather than the Games village by the Yamuna River, and they brought along their own sanitation team. England has promised to send the rest of its squad in the next few days, and New Zealand has also confirmed its participation.

Perry Crosswhite, head of the Australian Commonwealth Games Association, said he was happy to live in the village. "Conditions at the Commonwealth Games Village are acceptable," he said in New Delhi. "Things are getting better."

Despite their countries' confirmed participation, four top cyclists from England and one from New Zealand have pulled out of the Games, citing health concerns. Welsh cyclist Geraint Thomas said in a statement that "the risk of getting ill was a massive risk."

Other problems continued to dog the organizers Friday. About 200 Indian doctors and nurses walked out of a briefing because they said they had not received clear instructions about their postings.

Late Thursday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh criticized Games officials for the sloppy preparations and demanded quick action to clean up the venues. "The prime minister is taking a personal initiative and seeing that no stones are unturned to see that we have successful Games," said Prithviraj Chavan, a senior official in Singh's office. "We are all concerned, and we know that it is a very prestigious undertaking for the country."

Some said India should not be hosting the event. "In hindsight, no, they shouldn't have been awarded the Games," John Coates, president of the Australian Olympic Committee, said Friday in Sydney. "Obviously, the venues are not ready."

Meanwhile, Ajay Agarwal, a lawyer based in New Delhi, asked the Supreme Court on Friday to defer the Games to prevent national shame. The government should instead focus on providing relief to flood victims in northern India, he said.

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