Commonwealth Games in crisis as bridge collapses

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Sep 22 2010 11:16 AM | Updated as of Sep 22 2010 07:16 PM

NEW DELHI – The Delhi Commonwealth Games were plunged into crisis Tuesday 12 days from the start after the athletes' village was described as "uninhabitable" and a footbridge collapsed at the main stadium.

Adding to the sense of chaos that has enveloped an event India hoped would project its new economic power on the international stage, a leading Australian athlete pulled out of the competition because of security fears.

Organizers scrambled to contain the damage, fearful that a pullout by a major team could wreck the October 3 to 14 multisport showcase that has long been dogged by delays, corruption allegations and anxiety about safety.

Mike Hooper, chief executive of the Commonwealth Games Federation, led stinging criticism about the athletes' residential towers, which will embarrass the government that has admitted the country's prestige is on the line.

"They're filthy. You can't occupy them. They need a deep clean. There's builders' dust and rubble in doorways, shower doors the wrong way round, toilets that don't work," he said just two days before athletes begin arriving.

There was also "excrement in places it shouldn't be", he said -- referring to problems thought to be the result of thousands of laborers using the toilets in the "certainly uninhabitable" residential complex.

Complaints about cleanliness, plumbing and electrics were also made by other countries that have sent advance parties to the Indian capital, including Scotland which described the village as "unsafe and unfit for human habitation."

"The reality is that if the village is not ready and athletes can't come, the implications are that it's not going to happen," New Zealand chef de mission Dave Currie told New Zealand commercial radio.

"It's pretty grim really and certainly disappointing when you consider the amount of time they had to prepare."

Thousands of workers have been laboring around the clock to finish sports facilities and the athletes' village, as well as to clear up piles of building rubble that still litter large parts of the capital.

At the main Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, which will host the opening ceremony and athletics, a footbridge that was under construction collapsed on Tuesday injuring 27 laborers, four of them seriously, police said.

The approximately 100-meter (328-foot) bridge, previously suspended by cables from a large steel arch, fell down as workers were paving it, a witness told AFP near the crumpled sections of the structure.

"I saw several people with bleeding arms and injuries on their bodies being taken away," construction worker Zakir Hussein said.

The government blacklisted PNR Infrastructure, the company that was constructing the bridge, and ordered an investigation by a two-member committee, the Press Trust of India reported.

But building work for the games, expected to draw 7,000 athletes and officials from countries and territories mostly from the former British empire, has been severely delayed and doubts had already been raised about the quality of the construction.

India's chief anti-corruption body found a host of problems with construction work in a July investigation, including dubious contracts and the use of poor quality materials.

The other main worry ahead of the games has been the risk of attacks by militant groups that target India, with anxiety raised at the weekend after a gun assault outside Delhi's main mosque left two Taiwanese men injured.

In what could potentially be the start of a rash of athlete withdrawals, the women's reigning world discus champion Dani Samuels of Australia pulled out Tuesday because of security and health concerns.

"Dani is extremely distressed about it all," Samuels' manager Hayden Knowles told the Australian Associated Press. "The situation in Delhi has been bothering her for some time... But the events over the weekend made it real."

In a further blow to an already-weakened athletics field, defending champions Christine Ohuruogu (400m), also the Olympic champion, and Lisa Dobriskey (1500m) also both withdrew from England's team for injury reasons.

And triple-jump title-holder and world champion Phillips Idowu was considering his participation because of security and safety reasons.

"My advice to him was to wait until the hype dies down, we still have a couple of weeks to go," Idowu's agent Ricky Simms said.

Other star athletes such as Jamaican sprinters Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell have already decided not to attend.

The president of the Commonwealth Games Federation, Michael Fennell, opened the criticism Tuesday with a damning statement that said several nations had been "shocked" by the "seriously compromised" games village.

The Indian organizing committee attempted to reassure athletes.

Lalit Bhanot, organizing committee secretary-general and official spokesman for the games, said the village was "probably one of the best ever".

"The athletes will arrive here from the evening of September 23 and we are doing our best to clean the entire village well in time," he said.

"Everyone has different standards about cleanliness. The westerners have different standards, we have different standards."