> Debate editor Henry Stoneley looks at the failings of the Commonwealth Games, and questions whether the event has a future
By the time this is published, the Commonwealth Games should be in full flow. Whether they are or not, I can’t predict. With a week to go before the first games India has held, things were, quite literally, collapsing around them.
On September 22, the roof of the weightlifting arena collapsed, injuring workers. The arena is at the heart of the Jawaharlal Nehru complex, the centrepiece of India’s first games. As this goes to press, the Welsh and Scottish teams are refusing to fly until guarantees can be made over their safety. New Zealand have ruled themselves out entirely.
Just two days prior, a bridge connecting two areas of the stadium collapsed, injuring 27 workers. Sadly, these events are not totally unexpected. Former Minister of Youth and Sports Affairs, Mani Shankar Aiyar had expressed his concerns over a year ago, stating that the games would be “spoilt” if they were held in India.
Perhaps predictably, The Times of India, along with many Indian news outlets, slated Aiyar, eliciting Samuel Johnson’s quote that “patriotism is the last refuge of all scoundrels”. However, the closer the games get, if indeed they ever do, the more accurate Aiyar’s predictions appear to be.
The athlete’s village, a £150million development, has also been at the centre of considerable controversy. The Scottish team’s complaint supposedly included a photograph of a dog defecating on one of the athlete’s beds. Other rooms were found to be flooded following seasonal monsoon rains. The state of the unfinished facilities, due to open on September 23, led to complaints from the team captains of England, Scotland, Wales, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, a considerable proportion of the games participants.
Delhi has had a brand new airport built for the occasion, which was expected to ease the hundreds of thousands of tourists the games usually attract. I had the dubious pleasure of spending 36 hours in Delhi airport this summer, with the first eighteen coming just three days after it was opened.
What I, and indeed the forty other passengers waiting in transit, found was an airport in disarray. I’ve no issue with that, anyone who was anywhere near Terminal 5 at Heathrow after it was opened will know that even some of the world’s greatest airports can make a giant hash of things. Delhi’s airport wasn’t dirty, nor was it visibly dangerous, but it was unbelievably confusing.
The currency exchange bureau, manned by two men in uniforms with “Currency Exchange Officers” emblazoned across them, informed us that they could not exchange currency in the terminal yet. Given that there were no ATMs this was a little odd, but this isn’t a story about Delhi Airport. It’s about the general levels of organisation in this project.
Following the concerns about South Africa hosting World Cup 2010, perhaps this furore over Delhi is just absurd, media spun conjecture. India may yet host a fantastic Commonwealth Games, just as South Africa can be justifiably proud of an enigmatic World Cup. As it stands though, the Games are in danger of becoming a joke.
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MkSWE9UZjdE[/youtube]Nobody is pretending that the Commonwealth Games is the Olympics. However, it is a prestigious athletic event, with a proud (if not slightly colonial) history, and has, in its time, created some fantastic stories and icons. The XIX Games look perilously close to becoming a joke, and it is the responsibility of India, the Commonwealth Games Committee and indeed the teams themselves, to make sure they salvage the Games’ reputation.
What the issues in Delhi really highlight, is whether or not there is a need for the Commonwealth Games in the modern era.
Sir Matthew Pinsent, the former Olympic Gold rowing medallist, is going to the games as part of the BBC commentary team. Speaking to BBC Radio 5 live, he too questioned the need for the games:
“What groups the Commonwealth together anymore? It used to be the Empire Games…as time goes on you get further away from independence”.
“If the numbers of athletes are going up and it’s getting more and more expensive and difficult for host cities, does it carry on, does it have a big future?”
With the lengthy list of absentees, both entire nations and individual athletes, it is hard to see how India can turn a profit on the games, with estimates for the cost generally falling between £2bn and £6.5bn.
With all this in mind, and the problems that India has experienced in trying to host the games, despite being given 7 years to do so, would it really be any wonder if potential future hosts were put off? Losing athletes like Geraint Thomas, the 4000m pursuit Olympic Gold medallist will have a significant impact not only on the prestige of the competition, but also the crowds it will draw.
The last thing that the Commonwealth Games needs now is another high profile nation dropping out. New Zealand’s withdrawal is an embarrassing upset. Even though they are said to be monitoring the situation and may yet return, the very fact that they were willing to turn their backs on such a high profile tournament highlights the lack of faith amongst the teams in the host nation.
Whether the games go ahead as planned I can’t predict. My guess is that they will, albeit with certain high profile absentees. However, it is not the immediate future of the games that should be of concern; it is the future of one of the oldest events in the athletic calendar.
Who knows? Maybe Delhi will turn out to be the games that everyone who has ever visited India knows they are capable of. Delhi could, and should, be a celebration of a vibrant culture, with some fantastic sport and hopefully a plethora of decent stories. If it is, then the games has a future, and if not? If not, then this may well be one of the last Commonwealth games, and that is an unacceptable loss.