Against All Expectations, Commonwealth Games About to Begin

News Abroad

Maura Elizabeth Cunningham is a graduate student in the Department of History at the University of California, Irvine and editor of The China Beat (thechinabeat.org). Her writing has previously appeared at Forbes.com, Yale Global Online, and World History Connected.

After months and weeks of speculation, in the face of dozens of press reports gleefully recounting all the stumbles and failures, despite several big-name athletes declining to attend, the Commonwealth Games are on track to start as scheduled on October 3 in New Delhi.

I have to admit that I was among the pessimists. In mid-September, I looked out a tour bus window and realized that the overpass we were driving on in the middle of Delhi didn’t have a guardrail.  A row of traffic cones were all that stood between our vehicle and empty air; just before I closed my eyes to shut out the sight, I read a neatly lettered sign hanging on one cone.  “Commonwealth Games 2010:  Work in Progress.”

In the weeks since I’ve returned from India, Delhi has been abuzz with CWG construction.  The city has been working like a college student pulling successive all-nighters to finish a term paper that’s been on the syllabus all semester; maybe the end result won’t be a solid A, but at least it will be finished.

Most accounts of the CWG preparation have emphasized the seemingly catastrophic problems plaguing event organizers.  Some of those issues were surely avoidable—such as delays in construction, poor quality of finished work, and allegations of corruption—while others, like the epic monsoon rains hitting Delhi during recent weeks, were unforeseen complications.

Both the Indian and international presses jumped on the story of the “Common Woe Games,” blaring headlines such as “Indian Sports Showcase Turns Into Fiasco” (New York Times, September 23), “Sprinting to Disaster” (India Today, September 25), and “Let the Games Not Begin” (Time, October 4 issue).  Placed in comparison to the successful Beijing Olympics of 2008, the Commonwealth Games have been used to emphasize the disparities between China and India and served as proof for many that India is not yet ready to take on the role of hosting a global mega-event (“‘Shame Games’ Put India Further Behind China,” BusinessWeek, September 26).

Yet such skepticism in advance of the Games shouldn’t surprise us; in fact, this is a familiar story that seems to reappear each time a city prepares to stage such an event, especially when the host is in a still-developing country.  Athens felt the sting of criticism for years in advance of its 2004 Summer Olympics (an event still under fire, reappearing in headlines earlier this year for its possible contribution to the current Greek economic crisis) as the city scrambled to complete preparations for the Games.  And while the Beijing Games went smoothly for China in 2008, it was quite a different story in the months leading up to the May 1 launch of the World Expo currently underway in Shanghai:  reports from the event’s soft opening in late April seemed to portend disaster, though the Expo has proceeded with relatively few complications since its official start.

Nor is this a particularly new story, as we see when we look back a century or so.  At the turn of the twentieth century, the United States struggled to be taken seriously as a rising power capable of serving as a host country for early mega-events, with initially poor results.  European observers lamented the “misfortune” of selecting St. Louis as the site of the 1904 Olympiad, deriding the parochialism of the Games and the accompanying Louisiana Purchase Exposition.  Two previous World’s Fairs in the U.S. had suffered from delays and budget problems:  organizers pushed back the opening day of Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exposition by several weeks to accommodate construction setbacks, which also hindered the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago.  That event, meant to commemorate the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World, should have begun in 1892—not 1893, as it actually did.

This is not to overlook the serious social issues that have moved into the spotlight due to the Commonwealth Games, nor to suggest that Delhi was more prepared for the CWG than observers reported.  Instead, I want to stress that this story is not unique to India; concerns about speed of venue construction and quality of athlete villages seem to pop up every time such an event rolls around, especially in a country that has not yet proven its hosting capabilities.  With the largest number of CWG participants ever already confirmed in Delhi, it appears that the city is well on its way to putting on a show worth watching, as so many others have done in the past.

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