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Commonwealth Games: Where's the sports?

Soutik Biswas | 13:48 UK time, Monday, 2 August 2010

Debris outside a Commonwealth Games stadium in DelhiDo the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Delhi have anything to do with sports? It doesn't appear so. With barely 60 days to go for the country's showiest sporting event ever, I have not read or seen anything in the papers and TV on how its athletes are preparing for the games, and what their prospects are. Not one story in the papers or on the networks. Nobody seems to know who is playing for whom. Nobody seems to even care.

Instead, every day brings newer allegations of bribery, leaky stadiums, a runaway budget (18 times over its original 2003 estimate), shadowy contractors, dodgy money transfers, forged certification, inferior equipment and sweetheart deals. (The curiously silent government only says it is investigating the complaints, but it may be too late.)

Over 40 workers, by the government's own admission, have died at Games construction sites. Then there is the unedifying sight of roads caving in and the city drowning in its own detritus as Delhi struggles to undergo a frenzied makeover which makes little sense - sandstone-tiled sidewalks! - to its harassed denizens.

The Games have already become the worst advert for a "resurgent, confident" India. Most of the people I know are planning to flee the capital with family - schools will be shut - during the event. They expect massive gridlock with lanes being allotted to Games traffic on its already congested roads. The poor are completely alienated - they have been at the receiving end of eviction drives to clean up the city for the event. People, in general, are calling it a "total waste of money." On the blogosphere, people are calling it "Common Wealth Gains", among other unkind things.

"This is getting dirtier than the Yamuna!" screamed one recent newspaper headline, alluding to the filth-choked river that runs through Delhi. The rising tide of allegations about corruption has fed the perception that politicians and officials have lined their pockets (once again), using the Games as an excuse. Delhi is easily India's most corrupt city, and the perception sticks easily.

So what are the Games really about?

"The Games were never about sports," says MJ Akbar, editor of The Sunday Guardian newspaper. "They were a fortuitous opportunity for Delhi's ruling class to divert a vast fortune from the national exchequer in the name of national prestige, and spend it on just those few parts of India's capital where the elite live. As patriotism, despite its many virtues, is also the last refuge of the scoundrel, a healthy part of the money was siphoned off, evidence of which has begun to move towards the front page."

What is baffling is the collective silence of the participating countries. In the early days, some raised questions about the speed of work; they were quickly assured by organisers that all was well. Now the chief executive of the Australian Commonwealth Games Association, Perry Crosswhite, suspects political motives. "It looks like the parties and the government there are having a go at each other, and no doubt everybody has got their little axe to grind. These things tend to happen before these type of events - the blame game begins," he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Mr Crosswhite is only partly correct. Many believe that between the phony patriotism of the organisers and the doomsday predictions of the cynics, sports will be the biggest loser. They say at its best the Games will be a lackadaisical event; and at its worst, it could end up tarnishing the country's much vaunted reputation.

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