India’s Games Go On, Despite Questions of Readiness

BY Larisa Epatko  September 24, 2010 at 2:25 PM EST


Indian laborers work in front of Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi. Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

The Commonwealth Games — former British colonies’ version of the Olympics — begin Oct. 3 in India, but preparations have been muddled by a collapsed pedestrian bridge, filthy athletes’ village and the shooting of two tourists in New Delhi.

Athletes from New Zealand and Canada delayed their departure over hygiene and security concerns, but were still planning to participate. On Friday, the English hockey and lawn bowling teams arrived in New Delhi, though they plan to stay in hotels before moving the village for the 10-day competition, according to the Associated Press.

The problems leading up to the Games prompted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to call an emergency meeting Thursday with his top ministers, while construction crews scrambled to put the finishing touches on the athletes’ living quarters and venues.

The Games were at one time portrayed as India’s version of the Beijing Olympics or “Beijing light,” or as a trial run for India possibly hosting its own Olympics, said Jason Overdorf, who wrote an opinion piece for GlobalPost. “I think that was biting off more than they could chew.”

But, Overdorf notes, the Games could be just what the country needs to shake off its political apathy. In India, the poorest people tend to vote more than the elite, he said in a telephone interview, and the middle class generally feels like it can’t make a difference or influence the system.

“The middle class is worn down, and they’ve accepted things that are really unacceptable, because India has such a great momentum and everything is difficult, and everyone sort of focuses on their own thing,” said Overdorf. “So I think the shame of having to show it to foreigners is a potential wake-up call to say, ‘Look, why are we putting up with all of this. This is our city more than it is the people who are coming as visitors for these 10 days for the Commonwealth Games.’”

People are often amazed when they come to India and see the obstacles residents are facing but are still able to operate businesses, for example, Overdorf said. “You have companies that are building their own power plants because the government’s not providing them with enough power, and they’re still able to compete globally despite having the extra expense of making their own power.”

But at the same time, not being able to hide India’s ugly side will show visitors there’s more going on in the country than its rapid growth and efforts to become the next China economically speaking, he said.

And although India wasn’t able to put on a grand, theatrical production for the Commonwealth Games, like China was for the Olympics in 2008, one good thing did emerge, according to Overdorf.

In India, there is a “vibrant dialogue about everything. And it has a freedom of the press, and they’re remarkably free in letting foreign journalists report on what happens in the country, which is pretty unique throughout Asia,” he said. “In one sense their greatest failure is also their greatest success that they haven’t been able to script everything and force everyone to stick with the party line.”