Oc tarnishes India's image

Media centre too underwent a lot of changes till the last minute.-PTI

Financial scams, rains, unfinished stadia, an incomplete and ‘filthy' Games Village, ill-conceived and less-rehearsed traffic plans and security drills meant that all concerned would have to keep their fingers crossed till the Games actually got over. By Rakesh Rao.

“Will we be holding the Commonwealth Games at all?” Such doubts expressed by die-hard sports lovers have ceased to surprise those monitoring the preparedness of New Delhi to play host to the country's biggest sports event since the 1982 Asian Games.

The apprehensions were clearly borne out of the impression created every passing day by reports highlighting controversies, corruption, missed deadlines for projects, seepage and leakage in many newly-constructed stadia, not to talk of the tons of debris spread all over the Capital.

In short, the picture was far from perfect as Delhi went into the Games, ill-prepared in many respects and with the city infrastructure in complete disarray.

Financial scams, rains, unfinished stadia, an incomplete and ‘filthy' Games Village, and ill-conceived and less-rehearsed traffic plans and security drills meant that all concerned would have to keep their fingers crossed till the Games actually got over.

In a desperate attempt to score over Hamilton, Canada, in its bid in 2003, New Delhi had offered freebies including a training grant of $ 100,000 each to the participating nations. There were free tickets, hospitality and transport to go with it for entire contingents.

The reckless spending continued well into the final stages when the Government, concerned about growing criticism, tightened the screws on budgets.

Hardly anything moved till January 2007. As a result, delay in completion of projects was inevitable. Assurances kept coming from those in authority. Delhi, we were told at regular intervals, was on course to hold the “best Games ever.”

Over a period of time, this particular line of "best Games ever" and “world-class” facilities became such an obsession with officials and ministers that they were still parroting it when foreign delegates came and slammed them for the “filthy Games Village” which they termed was “uninhabitable.” Further, a foot overbridge collapsed at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, just about 11 days before the start of the Games.

With the complete lack of coordination among various agencies too evident, it became increasingly clear that the October 3-14 Games may not turn out to be the greatest that everyone was talking about.

But, these Games will surely be the costliest to date.

The construction, reconstruction and refurbishing of several Games venues not only meant mindless spending but also took precious time. It took nearly five months to clear the debris of the old structure alone at the Dhyan Chand National Stadium.

Taxpayers' money was being spent as though it was least of the concerns. Projects got delayed, the costs kept escalating and this suited the corrupt in various agencies engaged in Games-related work to make hay.

Not surprisingly, two monitoring, independent agencies, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) took turns to bring forth cases of rampant corruption in the Games related activities.

Once the scam related to the launch of the Queen's Baton Relay in London broke out, the skeletons began tumbling out of the Organising Committee (OC) cupboard.

A bigger scam than the QBR one was the ‘outlays' extravagance in which things like air conditioners and treadmills were initially hired at treble the cost.

Unprecedented rains in Delhi threatened to cause havoc with stadia, flooded indoor halls, damaged wooden floorings and almost damaged the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium track. An ill-conceived tunnel, for the benefit of performing artistes during the opening ceremony, all but ruined the main stadium.

Obviously, the authorities had not taken into account a prolonged monsoon or the kind of damage and delays it could cause.

For that matter the OC seemed to have given little thought to the transport and clearance of huge consignments involving equipment, accessories, tents etc that formed ‘overlays'. The net result was delayed arrival of consignments after cutting through Customs bottlenecks and frenetic installation of equipment.

The money spent on reconstructing the stadia was unbelievable, the Rs 961 crores for Nehru Stadium, and the Rs 377 crore for the Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Aqautic Complex standing out for lavish spending.

The aquatic complex was a shame really; too many technical flaws that made old-timers murmur that the original was a better designed pool.

Those in charge of building stadiums for the Games, all government agencies, deserve to be hauled up for inexplicable delays, poor quality of material used and shoddy work.

Reports of scam touched procurement of several items including synthetic surfaces, gymnasium equipment, furniture, fittings etc. In fact, the ‘Village'catering contract went back to a once-rejected Delaware North, an Australian hospitality management firm, for allegedly twice the amount initially quoted.

Amidst reports of corruption and needless spending, came the news of a Rs. 40-crore aerostat for use during the opening ceremony. The opening and closing ceremonies alone were estimated to cost anything from Rs 200 crore to Rs 300 crore.

Oscar-winning music composer A. R. Rahman, who took Rs five crore for the theme song, came in for criticism when he initially released his song and he had to ‘ tweak' it further to make it more peppy. Quite inevitably, people compared Rahman's “Oh yaaron” with Shakira's ‘Waka, waka' of the World Cup fame.

The eleventh-hour completion of most venues meant there was no real home advantage for the host participants. Millions were spent on making the venues “world class” but hardly a thought was spared for the covering media persons.

Though a media tribune is an integral part of any venue, the seats of the proposed press box had to be uprooted to make room for tables for the media.

For a Games, plagued by controversies and lack of public interest (except in wanting to know when Delhi will stop looking like a bombed out city or whether the Games would be held at all), the CGF stipulation of not releasing the names of the participating athletes till the last moment was another factor that contributed towards a complete lack of build-up.

Hoardings started appearing on the streets, announcing the Games and its mascot, Shera, only through the last few weeks to the opening. Merchandising was practically non-existent till the last moment. The firm which walked out did come back, but the impact among the public was minimal. Ticketing was done in a haphazard manner. Opening ceremony tickets were priced beyond the reach of the common man, with Rs 1000 being the least denomination. With around Rs 30,000 crores to be spent on these Games, one wondered why the OC had to milk the public further to fill its coffers.

The OC's projected revenue targets were never met. Its loan of Rs 1620 crore plus an overlays budget of Rs 687 crore, both to be returned to the Government, thus remained in suspense. Closer to the Games, the OC raised another demand of Rs 720 crore from the Government.

Along the way, the news of some of the leading sportspersons pulling out of the Games began coming in. Sprinter Usain Bolt was clearly the biggest name to stay away from Delhi. Security remained the greatest threat to the Games till the very end, with Australia and New Zealand, in particular, expressing concerns now and then. Health and hygiene issues, with Delhi in the grip of a variety of diseases, remained a secondary, but major concern for all participating nations.

The series of doping scandals involving a dozen sportspersons were awkward moments for the host nation. A bigger embarrassment was the foot overbridge collapse at the main stadium with 11 days to go for the opening ceremony.

The focus has never been firmly on the sportspersons, preparing in silence. In the backdrop of all the criticism and cynicism, there are no great expectations from these Games. Ironically, the low expectations will only help the Games get a good review since it is likely that anything above average will be showered with superlatives.

The OC, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and the Sports Ministry were all eventually interested in only two things, a grand opening ceremony and a record medal haul for the host.

Whether we do it or not, they are bound to say in the end: “We had the best ever Games and the best ever medals tally!”