'Seven days to save face'

Residents are venting their frustrations about the problem ridden preparations for the Games, even questioning why they are hosting the event.

An Indian worker at an unfinished construction site next to the lawn bowling venue outside Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, the main venue for the Commonwealth Games. Kevin Frayer/ AP Photo
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Driving around Delhi last week, as the rains poured on the Commonwealth Games party, it was difficult to believe this drenched city, which hardly looked in the mood to welcome visitors, was getting dressed for a big occasion. There were few billboards advertising the event and nothing seemed to be ready yet. Worse, there was a clear lack of enthusiasm generally associated with such events.

Negotiating the jammed, waterlogged streets, the taxi driver said he wished his country had never set out to stage the Games. "What are we getting from these Games?" Rajbir asked. "They have closed some roads making life difficult for us. There are few tourists coming. So much money has been spent and so much of it pocketed, and all that the country has got is shame." As the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing were the "coming out party" for China, the Commonwealth Games had been expected to showcase "India Shining" on the global stage.

But after visiting Delhi last week, the sense of collective disillusionment sweeping through India is palpable. Every new day sees more embarrassment heaped on a nation that was hoping to join countries such as China, South Africa and Greece who have been able to successfully bring showcase sporting events to the world. Rajbir, the driver, navigated around some of the Games venues, which still resembled constructions sites with few workers in sight. The clean-up operations had yet to start.

An elevated road leading to the main arena for the Games, the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, seemed ready for launch, but roads in the rest of the city were still full of spine-jarring potholes, some big enough to belong to the manholes category. The taxi got stuck in one such ditch, an open gutter, and, with pants pulled up to the thighs, we valiantly tried to push it out without much success. After an hour of getting soaked in the rains, a tractor finally helped us out - for an exorbitant price, of course.

"The funny thing is they have cleared jhuggis (slums) from around the city," Rajbir said, "but they have forgotten to clean the rooms at the Games Village." Sarcasm about the shambolic build-up to the event, which has been dubbed the "Shame Games" by the Indian media, is rife. "A collapse a day keeps the athletes away," said an SMS from Shams Raza, a production executive with an Indian news channel, referring to a footbridge that collapsed outside the main stadium last Tuesday.

Later, as we met at the airport - the one impressive addition the Games have given Delhi - Raza showed us photographs of the filthy rooms from the Games Village. On the television sets at the new terminal, footage of the collapsed footbridge and an Australian journalist entering the main arena unchecked with a suitcase full of detonators dominated discussions. "We have had seven years to put on a show," Raza said. "Now we have seven days to save face."

With salvage operations having started on a "war footing" since, India's aspirations have been reduced to trying to protect the country's image. But it could be a tad too late even for that. arizvi@thenational.ae