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Games may struggle to take off without stars

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James Pearce | 10:21 UK time, Thursday, 30 September 2010

I've been lucky enough to cover many of the world's biggest sporting events since I started working for the BBC, but so far these Delhi Games have been different from anything that I've come across before.

Never before have I reported on a competition with so little focus on the actual sport during the build-up. All the talk so far has been dominated by security and the race against time to get everything ready.

The reality, though, is that there's only one reason why thousands of athletes and officials are here - to take part in a major sporting event.

I'm sure that the organisers of these Commonwealth Games are hoping that on Monday 4 October, when the competition gets under way, the negative publicity will subside. They'll be hoping for some captivating sporting drama to grab our attention and shift the focus away from any other issues that might remain.

Dress rehearsals take place for the opening ceremonty, featuring a massive air balloon

Dress rehearsals take place for the opening ceremonty, featuring a massive air balloon. More twitpics from James

That could happen, but my instinct is that it's wishful thinking. The reason for my pessimism is simple: in many events the quality of those likely to win medals is below the standard which you'd normally expect at a Commonwealth Games.

That's one of the reasons why there's been so little talk about the sport so far. Much of it isn't exciting people. There are notable exceptions, and I will come to them later, but as I assess the current interest, a quotation from the former Labour Party leader, the late John Smith, springs to mind.

He famously accused John Major of being "the devalued Prime Minister of a devalued government".

These Games have already been devalued by the inability of the organisers to have everything ready on time and my fear is that much of the sport is going to end up appearing devalued, too.

Many of the genuine superstars who should have been in Delhi aren't going to be here. I must emphasise that this is not all the fault of the Indian organisers.

Gymnasts like Louis Smith and Beth Tweddle had little choice but to pull out because of the proximity of this event to the World Championships.

Likewise, cyclists like Sir Chris Hoy have been forced to concentrate on the European Championship instead, as that will affect qualification for London 2012.

Those running the Delhi Games can hardly be blamed either for the outbreak of dengue fever, which has made some athletes more cautious about travelling to India.

Whatever the reasons, though, behind all the withdrawals, there's no hiding from the fact that some of the sporting competition will be weak as a result.

Take tennis, for example. The men's event could have featured stars like Andy Murray and Lleyton Hewitt, but instead there won't be a single player inside the world's top 100 taking part. Scotland's Elena Baltacha, ranked 50 in the world, was due to be the best women's player but guess what, yes, she's had to pull out too.

Caster Semenya has become the latest big name to withdraw from the athletics competition. She has a back injury, but even before her announcement the track and field events had been decimated by many other high profile absentees.

Phillips Idowu, Jessica Ennis and Christine Ohuruogu from Team England are all staying away, as are Usain Bolt, Kenya's David Rudisha - who broke the 800m world record twice in August - and the Australian world discus champion Dani Samuels. I could write a far longer list, but I won't, as you've probably got the message by now.

It's not all doom and gloom. Competition will be intense in the swimming pool. Rebecca Adlington will be there, as will Australia's three-time Olympic gold medallist Leisel Jones and one of the sport's new stars, Emily Seebohm. Events like netball, squash, badminton and hockey will also be able to show off many of the world's best players in Delhi.

With so many big names staying away, though, it's hardly surprising that ticket sales have been slow. International sporting events like this are normally marketed around the superstars. That's been impossible in Delhi.

If you want to be optimistic then you can say that at least these Games will give others a chance to shine and steal the limelight. Hopefully some new stars will be born over the next fortnight.

My fear is that there's been so much negative publicity over the past few weeks that it's now become difficult for the event to capture the public's imagination in a positive way.

In normal circumstances when a sporting event has had bad publicity during the build-up I'd say, "Don't worry, people will forget about all that when the sport begins." Unfortunately for Delhi, these have been far from normal circumstances.


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