India's show

Print edition : October 22, 2010

Everything about it was proclaimed as world class, but corruption in the agencies involved took the sheen away somewhat.

in New Delhi

A cultural programme by schoolchildren at the Games Village on September 30.-KAMAL KISHORE/PTI

THE athletes were greeted by some pleasant surprises when they arrived at the Games Village for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. It was not as bad as they had imagined it to be. It was certainly not uninhabitable, as some observers had remarked. It was still in the process of being set up to meet the desired standards, but the Commonwealth Games (October 3 to 14) was certainly on. The threat of the Games being cancelled was unreal, as was the belief that large-scale pull-outs would leave the organisers in a spot of bother.

It became a matter of prestige for a nation that was awarded the Games after the bidding process at Montego Bay, Jamaica, in 2003, but internal squabbles meant the preparations were delayed. India's image took a beating when stories of corruption and inefficiency made headlines, leaving the spirits of the Organising Committee (O.C.) in a shambles.

Questions like Will the Games be held at all were widespread. A foot bridge collapse, embarrassing stories from the Village, a shootout at Jama Masjid, unfinished construction, waterlogged roads and traffic jams, showed Delhi to be woefully underprepared to host an event of this magnitude. The athletes took the back seat and the focus stayed on the mismanagement of the organisers.

Organising Committee Chairman Suresh Kalmadi became the target of ridicule even as he pleaded that the fault was entirely his. The responsibility had to be shared by the government agencies, but it was the O.C. that bore the brunt of the criticism, especially Kalmadi and Secretary General Lalit Bhanot.

It rained incessantly and the problems multiplied for the O.C. At one stage it looked as if the Games could suffer from large-scale non-participation. The pressure on the O.C. was immense and the opportunity was used by many to settle scores. The blame kept shifting before things settled.

The fears of the Games being hit by extraneous factors grew when the country geared up to face the verdict of the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad Court on the title suit in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute. Officials of the O.C. were tense but their prayers were answered when the nation received the verdict with amazing maturity. These were certainly the first signs of the Commonwealth Games being on a rollicking course.

Stars disappoint

The Games does not belong to the top priority competitions when it comes to top stars. The trend of many stars, from the Jamaican sensation Usain Bolt to the Australian queen of the pool Stephanie Rice, opting out dealt a blow to its stature. Some stayed away because of injuries, some because of fatigue, and some on the grounds of health and security concerns in New Delhi.

The Australian delegation was among the most vociferous when it came to praising the hospitality of Indians. Impressed with the fantastic facilities at the Village and other venues, Australia's chef de mission Steve Moneghetti said: We are making it [India] our home now. He was critical of those who had opted out. If the athletes have dropped out, it is their personal loss, not a loss for the Games. It will be sad for the athletes. It is not about their personal performance, it is about representing Australia, observed Moneghetti, once a reputed long-distance runner.

SURESH KALMADI, ORGANISING Committee Chairman, with the mascot, Shera, at the opening of the Games Village on September 16.-MANVENDER VASHIST/PTI

A huge boost came from the South Africans when that country's chef de mission, Patience Shikwambana, commented: My athletes have all they need. We now feel like a part of India. The support from the African nations meant a lot to the O.C., which had been at the receiving end for most part of the run-up to the event. The Games will witness more than 6,000 athletes compete for glory in 17 disciplines.

The dark clouds of uncertainty gradually disappeared and the city basked in bright sunshine as the Village got the finishing touches and the athletes moved in.

There were glitches galore as the city geared up to meet the challenges. The handing over of the venues to security personnel for the lockdown began late and resulted in the media being denied access. I have not seen this happen anywhere in the world, said a scribe from New Zealand. His pleas to the security personnel proved futile.

The police had their story to tell. We have been under tremendous stress, and it is our responsibility to provide complete protection to the athletes and the spectators. The lockdown was necessary, and it was not our fault that we got access to the venues late, said a police officer.

Comparisons were made to the successful conduct of the 1982 Asian Games when India overcame many organisational hassles. The Asian Games showed the world that we could manage big sporting events well, said Bhanot. At the 1982 event, the government had formed a special organising committee and it did a splendid job. The Commonwealth Games was seen as a platform to showcase India's vibrant economy and organisational skills on a large scale.

Everything about the Games was proclaimed as world class, but corruption in many departments of the agencies involved took the sheen away as the deadline neared. The Delhi government continued to miss one deadline after another and then it was left with little option but to hide its flaws behind colourful hoardings that sprung up all over the city. Even if late, Delhi was finally ready to welcome its foreign athletes and delegates.

Indian challenge

For India's young sportspersons, the Games will provide a platform to excel in front of home fans. The shooting gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics for Abhinav Bindra had shown the way. A bronze each for boxer Vijender Singh and wrestler Sushil Kumar at the same Olympics reflected well on the progress Indian sportspersons had made in the past decade. These three remain India's sporting icons at the Commonwealth Games.

It is a great honour for the country to host such a big event, and it will be nice to win a gold medal, said Sushil. His views were echoed by Vijender, while Bindra supported the idea of staging sporting events regularly. It is important to have the right kind of infrastructure for our sportsmen to prepare themselves and excel at the international level. I think the Commonwealth Games will give a big boost to sport in India, said Bindra in a message.

New Delhi, all decked up, presented a gleaming transformation from the ugly sights of unfinished work a fortnight before the Games. This looks as good as any sporting city I have been to, said India's veteran hockey player Zafar Iqbal. The world class claims of the organisers had begun to take shape and finally the Games became the reality that one had looked forward to from the time the event was allotted seven years ago.

A view of the Village on September 25.-MANVENDER VASHIST/PTI

Shooting will be India's most favoured discipline, with observers expecting a rich haul of 17 gold medals, an improvement of two from the last Games in Melbourne, where India finished fourth overall with a tally of 22 gold medals. This time, the organisers expect a second-place finish for the host team in the overall medals tally.

The next best discipline for India will be wrestling, a traditionally popular sport. It was not part of the Games in Melbourne and its return raises a possibility of 15 gold medals, as targeted by the wrestling camp. Weightlifting and boxing should also bring cheers to the Indian camp.

The chances in lawn bowls, rugby sevens and netball can be as dismal as in swimming, cycling, squash and gymnastics. But there is hope. A medal in any of these disciplines will mean a big bonus. Table tennis hopes for a repeat gold from Sharath Kamal, the defending champion in the individual championships. His gold in Melbourne was an early indication of his potential, and he is keen to keep the title here too. Nothing like winning at home is his motivation.

Tennis makes its debut in the Commonwealth Games, and the greatest cheers will obviously be reserved for Sania Mirza. It is always a matter of great pride to represent the country and a gold medal will be the best gift to my well-wishers, said India's tennis star.

Athletics offers a very competitive field, but India cannot expect much; women's discus thrower Krishna Poonia raises the best possibilities of a gold medal. The hockey team's preparations have been quite extensive, and a podium finish will mean a lot to the team as it competes against teams from Australia, England, Malaysia and Pakistan.

For the badminton fraternity, a gold medal from Saina Nehwal will not be out of place. She has worked hard and her preparations have been on the highest level with coach P. Gopichand ensuring that her focus remains as fierce as it has been the entire season. The doubles pair of G. Jwala and V. Diju can spring a surprise.

The 19th Commonwealth Games are set to usher in a great sporting era in India. The mascot, Shera, and the theme song by A.R. Rahman promise to be part of the rich legacy the Games is expected to create. It will be testing times for the organisers. India will deliver the best Games, claims Kalmadi. Let the Games begin!

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