Saturday, 25 September 2010 14:34
The first English athletes have arrived in Delhi for the Commonwealth Games today as the threat of a mass boycott over safety and facilities receded.
The 16-strong men's hockey squad moved into a hotel while waiting for further work to be done on the £150m athletes' village where the team is meant to stay. England's lawn bowlers are also in hotel accommodation.
Some of the 34 blocks where around 7,000 athletes and officials will stay were described as "unfit for human habitation" by senior Games administrators earlier this week, sparking fears of a cancellation of the event. The concerns deepened this week when a bridge meant for spectators at the main stadium collapsed and 27 workers were injured.
Craig Hunter, the England chef de mission, said a lot more still needed to be done to make the village safe and ready for the athletes.
"It was a boost to see the early group of athletes arrive today and on schedule ... In the village, the level of activity continues to pick up and we are in a phase of looking at the detail, making sure that fire and safety equipment and procedures are in place and that the apartments are clean and safe," Hunter said.
"Our next wave of athletes arrives Sunday and a lot still needs to happen before then. So more and swift action is required."
Hockey players James Tindall and Ben Middleton visited the village today.
Tindall said: "It's good to be here. I am impressed with the work that the England team has done. To get a sneak preview is very helpful."
Middleton said: "It's nice to see it for ourselves. The flats are spacious – which is good for a major Games – but there are bits and pieces to be done to bring them up to standard. A couple of days will make a difference."
The Indian prime minister held crisis talks last night, as armies of cleaners and construction workers frantically tried to make the "filthy" athletes' quarters fit for habitation. Photographs made public yesterday revealed the extent of the problem, showing unfinished, flooded rooms with bathroom appliances thick with dirt.
Organisers received a further boost today when, after talks with Games organisers, New Zealand announced its athletes would attend. Several countries, including Wales and Scotland, confirmed yesterday that they would travel after getting assurances that issues with the athletes' village were being addressed.
Although the prospect of a mass boycott appears to be receding, four more British cyclists have withdrawn. England's Ian Stannard and Ben Swift, Wales's Geraint Thomas, and the Isle of Man's Peter Kennaugh all pulled out, with the latter citing concerns over "health and security".
New Zealand had been among the sternest critics of living standards at the village after the team manager, Dave Currie, said earlier this week that conditions in the New Zealanders' accommodation were "unlivable".
P Chidambaram, the Indian home minister, told the Games organising committee and Delhi authorities that he wanted all preparations at key venues finished by tonight or police would not have time to secure the facilities. One of the most powerful figures in the ruling centre-left Congress party coalition, Chidambaram delivered his ultimatum after the Australian prime minister said travel to India was an individual decision for athletes owing to the 14 major terror attacks in Delhi in the past 10 years.
Mike Fennell, president of the Commonwealth Games Federation, arrived in Delhi yesterday to review preparations before a final decision is made on whether the event can go ahead.
The Indian government and organisers appeared to acknowledge the scale of the problem for the first time, apologising to competing nations. "I genuinely feel sorry for what has happened and would like to apologise, not only on my behalf and on behalf of the organising committee but for everyone connected," said AK Mattoo, the organising committee secretary general. "This is a collective failure."
The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, spent the day meeting ministers to avoid countries withdrawing.
Fennell was met by the organising committee chairman, Suresh Kalmadi, at the airport yesterday, sending conciliatory signs after details of a shouting match with the Games' chief executive, Mike Hooper, were leaked to the press.
Speaking to Indian TV reporters later in the afternoon, Kalmadi, who has been keeping a low profile over recent days, said he had met all the team leaders now in India and they were "considerably happier than before".
Kalmadi admitted that there had been problems with the 16 accommodation blocks that had been finished late but that these had been "sorted out". Hooper was more cautious. "There has been improvement each day [but] there's more to do," he said.
Following a visit from the Delhi chief minister, Sheila Dikshit, labourers carrying brooms and other cleaning equipment arrived at the athletes' village while workers sprayed chemicals into the many pools of stagnant water, a breeding ground for mosquitoes. The capital has been hit by an outbreak of a dengue fever, carried by mosquitoes, in part caused by the ongoing construction work which has left hundreds of holes that have filled with rain. More than 2,000 people have been treated in hospital for the disease.