Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Whither the Commonwealth Games?

With just two weeks to the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the first to be held in the Commonwealth's most populous nation, the event has run into trouble. The president of the Commonwealth Games Federation, Michael Fennell, yesterday announced:

"Many nations that have already sent their advanced parties to set up within the village have made it abundantly clear that, as of the afternoon of 20 September, the Commonwealth Games village is seriously compromised. Significant operational matters remain unaddressed."

The Scotland team added in a statement: "On arrival in Delhi on Thursday last week, Team Scotland officials found that building works had fallen seriously behind schedule and that its allocated accommodation blocks were far from finished and in their view, unsafe and unfit for human habitation.

"After representation to the organising committee, Scotland was reallocated finished accommodation, but which still required serious cleaning and maintenance to bring it up to the necessary Games-ready standards. This has now been largely addressed by the Scotland team management, cleaning the seven-storey tower block from top to bottom themselves with assistance from Delhi Games volunteers.

"However, many of the other blocks in the Residential Zone still remain in a highly unsatisfactory state ... During the last few days, despite repeated promises, only slow progress has been made, to the extent that there are now grave concerns as to whether the village as a whole will meet the health and safety standards required to host all 71 CGAs and their 6,500 team members, which are due to start arriving on 23 September."

These are not the first problems to afflict the Delhi Games. As Bloomberg notes: "The lead-up to the four-yearly Games, which feature about 8,000 athletes from the UK and its former colonies and dependencies, has been marred by allegations of corruption and mismanagement, an outbreak of dengue fever, monsoon floods and the 19 Sept. shooting of two Taiwanese nationals at the city's Jama Masjid mosque that raised fears over athletes' security."

Discus thrower Dani Samuels, last year's world champion, today became the first member of the Australian team to pull out of the Delhi Games over security concerns. An Australian TV crew had already helpfully exposed security problems by carrying a case for an explosive detonation kit into the main arena without being stopped.

Despite all of this, the Games will probably go ahead. Most major sporting events are plagued by stories about the unpreparedness of the venues in the run-up. It would surely be too politically embarrassing at this late stage to abandon Delhi. The Indian government had taken the Games on board as an opportunity to prove the nation's modernity. This in itself is something of a curio, because some might argue that the Commonwealth Games are an anachronism. When they began in 1930 they were known as the British Empire Games, but they gradually mutated into The Commonwealth Games, the third largest multi-sport event in the world.

Entry into the event depends upon membership of the Commonwealth, which is largely made up of former British colonies. This means that many of the world's sporting superpowers do not compete: the US, Russia, Germany, Brazil, Italy. But this is true also of other high-profile sports that are mostly held dear by former British empire nations, such as cricket and rugby union.

After so many Commonwealth/Empire Games have been held in Britain, Australasia and Canada, India's Games mark an important cultural break. Only Jamaica in 1966 and Kuala Lumpur in 1998 have taken the event away from the, let's admit it, majority white Commonwealth countries.

Not all athletes were committed to the Delhi Games, even before the current burst of stories. European Championship double gold-winning distance runner Mo Farah had already pulled out of the event, as had heptathlete Jessica Ennis and cyclist Chris Hoy, because the Games clash with cycling's European Championships.

Are the Commonwealth Games an anachronism whose course has run? Or are they a fine old tradition, worthy of maintenance for uniting disparate nations and giving athletes from many smaller nations a chance at glory?


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