Saturday, September 25, 2010

NEWS: Commonwealth Games chief rushing to New Delhi

By RAVI NESSMAN, originally posted Sep 22 @ Yahoo News

 A crane lifts debris from a pedestrian
bridge that collapsed Tuesday outside
the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium
NEW DELHI – The Commonwealth Games chief rushed to New Delhi seeking emergency talks with the prime minister over India's chaotic preparations, as two world champion competitors withdrew and England warned that problems with the athletes' village have left the sporting event on a "knife-edge."

No national teams have yet pulled out, but Scotland announced Wednesday it would delay its travel to the Indian capital, where the athletes' village — said to be incomplete and soiled with human excrement — was supposed to open Thursday.

Indian officials insisted that facilities would be ready and immaculate for the Oct. 3 games opening despite wide-ranging concerns about unfinished buildings construction collapses and an outbreak of dengue fever.

The Games, which bring together more than 7,000 athletes from the 71 countries and territories from the former British empire every four years, was supposed to showcase India as an emerging power in the international community. Instead, it has become a major embarrassment.

The city has had seven years to prepare, though very little work was done until 2008. New Delhi has been a frenzy of activity in recent weeks, as it struggles to meet the deadline — only adding to concern that haste could lead to shortcuts in construction of key facilities.

On Tuesday, a 90-meter (yard) pedestrian bridge collapsed at the main stadium, injuring 27 construction workers, five critically. On Wednesday, part of a drop ceiling at the weightlifting venue collapsed, officials said.

Compounding concerns over the readiness of the games facilities are security fears after the Sunday shooting of two tourists outside one of the city's top attractions. An Islamic militant group took responsibility for the shooting.

Commonwealth Games Federation President Mike Fennell is due to arrive in New Delhi on Thursday, and has requested a meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, federation chief executive Mike Hooper told The Associated Press.

Hooper said the problems with the games preparations had prompted Fennell to rush to New Delhi far earlier than planned. His emergency trip "emphasizes that this is an important issue and we obviously need to engage at the highest level to get it fixed," Hooper said.

International sports officials have called the games village unfinished, dirty, hobbled by numerous infrastructure problems and even "unsafe and unfit for human habitation."

"It's just filthy. ... It hasn't been cleaned," said Hooper.

In addition to shoddy conditions inside and outside the buildings, there also are problems with plumbing, wiring, furnishings, Internet access and cell phone coverage. Hooper also confirmed reports of excrement found in the village.

"I've never come across this before," Hooper said of the last-minute preparations. "It's very frustrating to see the delays and the fact that we've had to come right down to the wire."

"We've been complaining about the delivery of the venues for nearly two years, and the constant delays," he said.

Andrew Foster, the chairman of Commonwealth Games England, said Wednesday "the next 24 to 48 hours is the critical time" to determine whether the standards of the athletes' village can be raised.

Foster told the BBC that "the safety of the athletes has to be our primary concern, but equally, we cannot just respond to that alone, we have to evaluate the whole thing together and that is what we are doing."

He said "it's a situation that hangs on a knife-edge."

The Indian media blasted its officials for the turmoil — "C'wealth Games India's Shame," The Times of India newspaper said Tuesday in a page-one headline.

But officials continued to downplay the problems, a position that international sports officials say defies reality.

"We are absolutely prepared," Cabinet Secretary K. M. Chandrasekhar, told CNN-IBN television Wednesday.

Speaking of the state of the athletes' village, Urban Development Minister Jaipal Reddy told CNN-IBN: "Athletes and guests should not bother about such small matters," and insisted it would be immaculate when the events begin.

Referring to the collapsed pedestrian bridge, New Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit told reporters: "The accident is not as big as being made out to be." Dikshit is the equivalent of the city's mayor.

The cost of hosting the games — which the government initially pegged at less than $100 million in 2003 — has skyrocketed, with estimates ranging from $3 billion to more than $10 billion.

Scotland's team, the first batch of which was set to leave Thursday, delayed its departure for the games, saying it wants to give organizers time to prepare accommodation and solve the growing number of problems. Commonwealth Games Scotland chairman Michael Cavanagh said that would be put off for "a few days."

Australian discus world champion Dani Samuels and England's world champion triple jumper Phillips Idowu both withdrew from the games Tuesday.

Idowu said in a Twitter message that: "I can't afford to risk my safety in the slightest. Sorry people, but I have children to think about. My safety is more important to them than a medal."

Australia's 1990 Commonwealth Games gold medalist, Jane Flemming, said Samuels' withdrawal could spark a flood of other athletes to make the same choice.

"It would not surprise me if we now see a whole flux of withdrawals," she told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.