India Isn't Ready for the Commonwealth Games

For China, the 2008 summer Olympics were a crowning moment that confirmed Beijing’s place as a 21st-century global capital. India had wanted to pull a similar trick for Delhi at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, which kick off on October 3, boasting when they won the bid that the Games would prove that India had shed its Third World reputation and put it in contention to host the 2020 or 2024 Summer Olympics.

But rather than highlighting India’s progress, the Commonwealth Games have so far only demonstrated how far the country has to go. Preparations for the event have been plagued by delays, bureaucratic red tape, cost overruns, and runaway corruption, as well as terror threats and an outbreak of dengue fever. If these problems sound familiar, they should. They are the same complaints foreigners level at India as a whole, and explain why the country continues to draw less attention from global investors than China.

The differences between Beijing 2008 and Delhi 2010 are telling. China did not just build 31 sporting venues from scratch. It created architectural masterpieces, commissioning some of the world’s best designers to conjure eye-popping signature structures, including the now famous Bird’s Nest stadium and the Water Cube. Only one of Delhi’s new stadiums is a showpiece, the Thyagaraj Sports Complex, which generates its own power using natural-gas turbines and solar panels, and is built from recycled materials. India boasts that Thyagaraj is the greenest stadium in the world, but as home court to the obscure sport of netball, it probably won’t attract much global attention. Most of the other venues are functional at best, or retrofits of decrepit facilities left over from the 1982 Asian Games. That speaks to complaints about India’s lack of strategic vision, compared to China and other rivals like Singapore or South Korea.

It’s not just a vision thing. The biggest gap is in execution. Beijing got such a fast jump on preparations for the 2008 Olympics that in 2006 the International Olympic Committee had to beg them to slow down. The Water Cube was ready eight months early, the Bird’s Nest stadium two months. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Games Federation has repeatedly warned India that it was falling dangerously behind schedule, and Delhi has missed four self-imposed deadlines for completing facilities. The training venue for field hockey, a sport in which India excels, was dropped because officials admitted it would never be ready in time.

Many of the delays were caused by red tape and legal battles over land acquisition, a common obstacle to developing anything in India. As a result, construction did not begin in earnest until 2008—five years after Delhi had been awarded the Games. The difficulty of acquiring land is one of the chief reasons foreigners have invested so much less in India than in China, particularly in manufacturing. It’s so hard to buy land for factories and warehouses in India that even a domestic giant like Tata Motors struggled to find space to build a factory for its new ultra-light, ultra-cheap compact car, the Nano.

Ostensibly finished facilities for the Games have also been dogged by worries, mainly over shoddy construction. The infield at the athletics stadium has been sinking because the ground was not properly compacted before a tunnel was built beneath it. The roof at the wrestling arena has been leaking like a sieve. Tennis players have complained about a substandard synthetic court surface, which they worry may lead to injuries. Most disturbing, the Central Vigilance Commission, the government’s own corruption watchdog, found that concrete at some stadiums failed to meet strength requirements and contained less cement than builders had claimed, leading the investigators to suspect that safety certifications may have been faked. The report heightened anxieties, already voiced in private by foreign security analysts, that the Games could witness a catastrophic stadium collapse. Government watchdogs also discovered massive overbilling by contractors, including one company that allegedly bilked the government $90 for each roll of toilet paper it supplied. Three members of India’s Commonwealth Games Organizing Committee, including its treasurer, have stepped down over graft allegations.

Corruption plagues China too. But with the Beijing Olympics, there were never fears over substandard construction. With national pride on the line, the government made sure there would be no loss of face. There was no such oversight in Delhi—with predictable results.

In Beijing, the biggest health concern for athletes and spectators was air pollution. But the government managed to clean up the city’s skies—at least a bit—by closing factories, imposing limits on driving during the Olympics, and even seeding rain clouds. Delhi’s air quality is actually worse than Beijing’s. And athletes will face myriad other worries—from an epidemic of dengue fever to the potential for food poisoning to fears of a terrorist attack. A number of top athletes—including Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, Australian swimming sensation Stephanie Rice, British cyclist Chris Hoy, and tennis star Andy Murray—have decided against attending the Games, although most have cited either injuries or conflicts with Olympic-qualifying events as the reason. Also not coming: Queen Elizabeth II, who is missing the Games for the first time in her reign.

Despite the setbacks, chief organizer Suresh Kalmadi has insisted that India will pull off the Games and leave Delhi in position to “emerge as the next sporting hub of the world.” Perhaps. Already many Delhiites compare the Games to an Indian wedding, in which nothing comes together until the last minute, yet everyone has a great time anyway. But what works with a few hundred forgiving friends and family may not be enough to win over a skeptical world.

Join the Discussion