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The Commonwealth Games and New Delhi’s image management problem August 17, 2010

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Stoddart, Brian , trackback

Brian Stoddart

It must now be reckoned that New Delhi (in both its city and seat of national government senses) has a major task in resurrecting the organisational reputation of the Commonwealth Games (CWG).  The sports events themselves will go well enough, despite construction delays and problems, because they always do: athletes seem to rise above all sorts of adversity to create memorable moments.  On the wider front, however, each day brings greater revelations that cast the Organising Committee (OC) and India as a whole in poor light.

The latest state of play is this.  Following an audit conducted back in January-February this year, the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) has now declared that at least 60 CWG-related projects are under scrutiny.  The Enforcement Directorate within the Ministry of Revenue has raised similar concerns, and both of those follow earlier reports of interest by the Central Vigilance Commission.  The Indian media smell corruption, and the hunt is on.

This follows very heated debate within the Lok Sabha where the Congress turned in on itself under the pressure of public criticism about the handling of the Games.  Suresh Kalmadi, the head of the OC and a Pune Congress representative was silent during the debate but it emerges that he had sent a letter to MPs declaring his innocence in whatever was happening.  Two second line OC members have been dumped as apparent sacrifices and one, T.S. Darbari, has gone public claiming he is, indeed, simply a scapegoat.  V.K. Verma, the Director-General, has responded by heaping all problems at the doors of the two departed.

The Congress high command has a problem.  Former Sports Minister and prominent CWG opponent Mani Shankar Iyer rounded on his colleague MP Kalmadi in the Lok Sabha, and several other Congress MPs did likewise.  Kalmadi, for all the protestations, is now the subject of public vilification as news of the deals done emerges.  There have been hints that Kalmadi will “leave” the position, though he denies that – if it happened, it would be bad publicity just ahead of the Games beginning.

Management is at the heart of this.  The thrust of the inquiries is that the OC wasted large amounts of public funds in dubious deals where due process seems not to have happened during allocation.  The Queens Baton Relay in the UK is a prime example, as is the awarding of broadcasting rights.  The QBR decision seems to have overlooked a serious conflict of interest matter in which the successful company was run by a close relative of an OC member who has since resigned as news of the matter broke.  CAG is now suggesting that the OC lost something like INR 24 crore (perhaps $US6-7 million) in its decision to award broadcast rights to a company called Fast Track.  Now in the context of the entire budget that might not seem a massive figure and, after all, Salman Khan was paid the same amount to star in a remake of Tarzan. The problem, however, is the implication that not all was straightforward in the deals.

Deliciously, CAG and the Enforcement Directorate are both now implicating the OC and the Commonwealth Games Federation itself in the Fast Track deal.  The CGF, of course, has been a constant source of irritation to the OC throughout the countdown to the Games.  CGF boss Mike Fennell and Delhi-based CEO Mike Hooper were prominent in moving that the CGF appoint an oversight committee because of its concerns with progress, moves Kalmadi opposed bitterly and successfully. Hooper has been especially unpopular and Kalmadi sought his sacking.  Hooper survived the onslaught, but it is widely believed that he has been sidelined in Delhi doing relatively little.

Now it seems that the fast tracking of the Fast Track deal was done by the OC on the advice of Hooper and Fennell, according to CAG.  Hooper apparently has said that the advice was given because of previous good experience with Fast Track (hardly a reason to vary tender processes), but that the decision was entirely the OC’s.  The most popular game in Delhi presently is Pass The Parcel!

As part of this, three Australia-connected companies are involved.  Two are based in Australia.  Sports Marketing and Management (SMAM) is a long-established and successful company with a good track record.  It was hired to do the marketing for Delhi and to find sponsors in return for what the CAG suggests were extremely high fees and commissions.  When news first appeared on this the OC immediately terminated the contract on the grounds of non-performance, a charge that SMAM denies vigorously.  Maxxam has now appeared as the successful Queens Baton Relay tenderer.  Sydney-based and newer than SMAM it has, nevertheless, an impressive set of sports clients.  In India, however, it has been declared an “unknown”, with the obvious implication of backdoor deals, none of which have been demonstrated.  EKS was brought in to “save” the Games when the first brouhaha erupted with the CGF.  It is a privatised sports development group based in Lausanne, a spinoff from the IOC and run by Craig McLatchey, former Secretary-General of the Australian Olympic Committee and one of the shrewdest people in world sport.  EKS masterminded the successful Rio Olympic Games bid.  Their fees are high, but some Australian press sources are suggesting much of the EKS advice in Delhi has been ignored.

The SMAM issue has provided the moment for which many have waited.  It is now being suggested that SMAM had some kind of connection to the World Sports Group that, wait for it, is in the middle of the uproar about television rights deals and kickbacks in that other soap opera, the Indian Premier League (IPL).  Someone had to tie the two massive sports juggernauts together somehow.  Lalit Modi, the IPL and the Board of Control for Cricket in India must be grateful that there is now someone else to share the spotlight.

This is clearly bad for the image, not only for the Games but for India’s way of doing business.  For example, during the Lok Sabha debate and elsewhere questions were raised about the activities of what had been appointed as the Oversight Committee for the Games some time ago when criticism first appeared..  Its Chair was Rahul Gandhi and it had a large membership including Ratan Tata, Vijay Mallya (of Kingfisher claim), Anand Mahindra, Jyotiraditna Scindia and many others.  Perhaps not surprisingly, given its large and powerful membership, it seems never to have met.  That, of course, is a direct issue of governance as well as management.  Even so, there are now some calls in India to draft Rahul in to save the Games.

As if all that was not enough, it now may well be that India does not field a hockey team at the Games, again because of governance and management issues.  The Government has for some time sought to limit the time any one person can control a sports federation, and generally better control the use of government funds in sport.  Several months ago that saw several Congress and other politicians, including Kalmadi, defy the Government openly.  Hockey has had on-going problems for years and some time ago Hockey India was formed to replace the Indian Hockey Federation.  However, Hockey India refused to observe the Government stipulation that no one over the age of 70 be allowed to hold office.  In fact, their new President is 83, the redoubtable Vidya Stokes of Himachal Pradesh Congress fame who still sits in the legislature there.  The Union Government is refusing to accept that and has asked the International Hockey Federation to regard the old IHF as the Indian hockey authority.  A standoff has arisen, and because the FIH has to recognise the body sending a team to the Games, India’s representation is in limbo.  Just to add to that drama, Indian women’s hockey has been the subject of some sensational sexual harassment allegations.

Meanwhile Australia, New Zealand and the UK have voiced further fears about the security aspects of the Games that have been written about so well in South Asia Masala recently.

Running a major sports event these days is no fun anywhere, and in the case of Delhi where so many other national conditions are thrown in the fun factor is reduced even more.  It is likely that the UPA will have to make some stand or other on the issue, because taking on the Games as a signifier of national progress was always a fraught matter.  A “great” Games could do wonders, but a “poor” Games could create a lot of damage, especially if the problems are in the management rather than the athletic field.  Resolute, immediate and drastic action may be required to guarantee the former and despatch the latter.


1. Kamala Kanta Dash - August 25, 2010

Thanks Brian for an update on CWG,the biggest ever sporting event in India’s history. I share your high optimism in India’s ability to do some JUGAAD (last minute quick fixing) and in the resilience of athletes to rise above all obstacles.

Dr. Manmohan Singh has woken up pretty late to declare that he will take appropriate action to ensure a safe and smooth functioning of the CWG. Many are keeping their fingers crossed.