Games on knife-edge as athletes pull out

Federation chief to meet Indian prime minister over chaotic preparations as England team chairman says problems may prompt many countries to withdraw.

Indian laborers work outside Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, the main venue for the Commonwealth Games,in New Delhi.
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LONDON // The Commonwealth Games chief will arrive in New Delhi today for emergency talks with the prime minister over India's chaotic preparations, as two world champion competitors withdrew and England warned that problems with the athletes' village have left the sporting event on a knife-edge.

No national teams have yet pulled out, but Scotland announced yesterday it would delay its travel to the Indian capital, where the athletes' village - said to be incomplete and soiled with human excrement - was supposed to open today. The first 22 members of the England Commonwealth Games team will fly to New Delhi today as planned, Commonwealth Games England said yesterday, according to the UK Press Association.

Indian officials insisted that facilities would be ready and immaculate for the games opening on October 3 despite wide-ranging concerns about unfinished buildings, construction collapses and an outbreak of dengue fever. The Games, which bring together more than 7,000 athletes from the 71 countries and territories from the former British empire every four years, was supposed to showcase India as an emerging global power. Instead, it has become a major embarrassment.

Yet, for a host country, international competitions are far less about sport than prestige. India's has already been damaged. – The National

Scotland team officials have described their housing in the athletes village as "unsafe and unfit for human habitation". Sir Andrew Foster, the chairman of the England team, said problems with the village raised the possibility that some of the bigger Commonwealth countries might pull out of the Games. He said "it's a situation that hangs on a knife-edge." A Scottish group of 41 rugby players, boxers, wrestlers and staff were to fly to India today but will now wait until they receive word from India that the accommodation problems have been resolved.

Michael Cavanagh, the chairman of Commonwealth Games Scotland, said that although his team remained "hugely committed" to the Games, India needs to take urgent action. His English counterpart echoed those concerns. "I think the next 24 to 48 hours is the critical time which will tell us whether the village has got enough accommodation for everybody to come into it," Sir Andrew said. Canada is also reconsidering whether to send its athletes. Martha Deacon, Canada's chef de mission for the Games, said Canadian delegates scouted the athletes' village, "and there is great concern about comfort, safety and cleanliness" .

The city has had seven years to prepare, although very little work was done until 2008. New Delhi has been a frenzy of activity in recent weeks, as it struggles to meet the deadline - only adding to concern that haste could lead to shortcuts in construction of major facilities. On Tuesday, a 90-metre pedestrian bridge collapsed at the main stadium, injuring 27 construction workers, five critically. Part of a drop ceiling at the weightlifting venue collapsed yesterday, officials said.

Compounding concerns over the readiness of the facilities are security fears after the Sunday shooting of two tourists outside one of the city's top attractions. An Islamist militant group took responsibility for the shooting. The Commonwealth Games Federation president, Mike Fennell, is scheduled to arrive today, and has requested a meeting with the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, the federation chief executive, Mike Hooper, said.

Mr Fennell's trip "emphasises that this is an important issue and we obviously need to engage at the highest level to get it fixed," Mr Hooper said. International sports officials have called the Games village unfinished, dirty, hobbled by numerous infrastructure problems and even "unsafe and unfit for human habitation". In addition to shoddy conditions inside and outside the buildings, there are also problems with plumbing, wiring, furnishings, internet access and mobile phone coverage. Mr Hooper also confirmed reports of excrement found in the village.

"I've never come across this before," Mr Hooper said of the last-minute preparations. "It's very frustrating to see the delays and the fact that we've had to come right down to the wire. "We've been complaining about the delivery of the venues for nearly two years, and the constant delays," he said. The Indian media blasted its officials for the turmoil - "C'wealth Games India's Shame," The Times of India said on Tuesday in a front-page headline.

But officials continued to downplay the problems. "We are absolutely prepared," the cabinet secretary KM Chandrasekhar told CNN-IBN television yesterday. Speaking of the state of the athletes' village, the urban development minister Jaipal Reddy told the channel: "Athletes and guests should not bother about such small matters", and insisted it would be immaculate when the events begin. Referring to the collapsed pedestrian bridge, New Delhi's chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, told reporters: "The accident is not as big as it is being made out to be."

The cost of hosting the games - which the government initially pegged at less than US$100 million (Dh367m) in 2003 - has soared. Estimates range from $3 billion to more than $10bn. The Australian discus world champion, Dani Samuels, and England's world champion triple jumper, Phillips Idowu, both withdrew from the Games on Tuesday. Idowu said in a Twitter message: "I can't afford to risk my safety in the slightest. Sorry people, but I have children to think about. My safety is more important to them than a medal."

Australia's 1990 Commonwealth Games gold medalist, Jane Flemming, said Samuels' withdrawal could spark a flood of other athletes to make the same choice. "It would not surprise me if we now see a whole flux of withdrawals," she told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. The English team hurdler, Natasha Danvers, who withdrew because of injury, told the BBC yesterday that a number of athletes were worried about competing in Delhi.

"I think a lot of the athletes ? are afraid, and it's a legitimate feeling," she said. * With additional reporting by the Associated Press