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Last hour games September 27, 2010

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

Brian Stoddart

In an almost perfectly scripted but horrible denouement the Delhi Commonwealth Games have now been hit by a controversy over the state of the athletes’ village, the collapse of a footbridge at the main stadium, and an outbreak of dengue fever. The combination has seen some individual athletes decide to miss the event, and some entire countries are still considering their options. At one point prominent teams from Commonwealth members like Scotland and New Zealand seemed poised not to attend. However, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stepped in to seemingly exercise authority, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit turned up personally to supervise the village clean up and Suresh Kalmadi, everybody’s favourite bad guy as Chair of the Organising Committee, has assumed responsibility for all the problems.

The Games will proceed but almost certainly with problems and some of them may be serious. The accommodation issue has been especially damaging because it has somehow captured the deep-seated cultural divisions that lurk just underneath the Games veneer. When officials from New Zealand and elsewhere pre-inspected the site before the arrival of their athletes, they immediately went public with how “filthy” it all was and declared their people could not live there.  The kneejerk OC response was that standards differed between India and those countries and that most arrivals would find the accommodation acceptable. That was both right, and wrong – the former as a statement of the obvious, the latter as a clear evasion of a problem that should have been prevented.

CWG Federation chair Mike Fennell has said the Games will proceed, but that India has suffered a huge blow to its reputation given all the problems that have emerged. That was more sensitive than Australian Olympic boss John Coates’ astonishing declaration that the Games should never have been awarded to Delhi, and that the city still had the Games only because the CWGF’s understaffing and underfunding prevented it from exercising full control. Had it been the Olympics, he said, Delhi would have forfeited the right to stage the Games long ago.

Unfortunately, the Coates’ comment, in line with his normal arguments in which money always seems to provide the starting point, reveals the real thinking that exists inside a lot of international sports circles and also Australian ones about India and what might be called the “non-regular” Commonwealth members – a neo-colonialist assumption that places like India cannot organise anything. It is not that long ago, for example, that Greg Chappell’s stormy tenure as India’s cricket coach failed essentially on the grounds of an intercultural breakdown.  The Chappell view was similar to that now pronounced by Coates – India thinks and acts differently from us and that, by definition, is not acceptable.

The Coates line is also misleading. No one now would seriously deny that the running of the Games project in Delhi has been poor, brought on by an over-elaborate administrative structure dominated by people who had far too many other important jobs at the same time, and exacerbated by hype as to what the world might expect. The results are now obvious and they are embarrassing for India.

That said, however, the CWGF cannot absolve itself of responsibility, either, or fall back on the Coates argument that it did not have the capacity to be more active. The CWGF has probably exercised greater intervention in these Games over the past two years or so than in any other preceding event. It identified what it thought were serious problems. It stared down the OC and Kalmadi when they wanted CEO Mike Hooper removed for what was his allegedly aggressive and unhelpful behaviour. The CWGF accepted all the Indian explanations as to what was happening, and in the past year or so all CWGF inspection teams went away accepting that while things were tight, they would be alright. It is rich in the extreme for the CWGF either itself or through apologists like Coates to be heaping the blame solely on India.

What must emerge out of this is also an object lesson for those wanting to deal with India in other spheres – there is much to know about how India does business, and about how to conduct transactions and developments around that business. Intercultural communication might be an overworked term, but the CWG test case reveals essentially just how significant a quality it is. At every step, arguably, the India-CWGF relationship has struggled because of a lack of understanding. The net result was that the OC became aggravated by the CWGF and the latter frustrated with its counterparts. The on-the–ground relationship was poor, to say the least, after the CWGF refused to remove Hooper as requested by the OC. As a result, the current situation has arisen.

Countries like Australia now increasingly reliant on India for trade and commerce would do well to conduct serious case studies around how all this has happened and what might be done to prevent a repetition of the current mess in other domains. Indian commentators are arguing that the Games will survive only because influential Commonwealth countries like Canada and Australia need the “new” India more than ever before. That may be so, but propping up the Games without understanding why these circumstances have emerged will not help in the longer run, either.


1. EAM - October 1, 2010

This is a well thought of discussion of how ill equipped many of our leaders are in dealing with the rising powers of Asia and truly grasping the changing balance of power. This accords with personal experience of seeing people in leadership positions interacting with Indians and Chinese. I think the younger generations display somewhat better capabilities in this regard when dealing with their peers in Asia.

On the games themselves, India has everything it needs to have pulled this off. With much less at hand in 1982(?), the Asiad went off very well. I remember commentary at the time in the Australian press that India was then ready to host the Olympics. What seems to be missing this time is a lack of interest and political will to pull it off. This may be the real reason for the current problems with the games. That India is very divided on the value of hosting the games is apparent even on the very eve of the games when people when people are marching in Delhi carrying placards such as “Schools not Stadiums”. Where the GOI has failed is underestimating the damage to the country’s reputation that could result from the problems and the lack of interest if not active hostility of a large body of opinion to the games. In China by contrast, it appears that the government had widespread support from its people ar at least the people of Beijing in hosting the Olympics.