October 3, 2010
By HEATHER TIMMONS and HARI KUMAR
NEW DELHI — In sharp contrast to the run-up to the Commonwealth Games, the opening ceremony started on time Sunday night and appeared to be meticulously planned, with a throbbing musical number that included hundreds of intricately costumed drummers, the world’s largest helium balloon and enormous dancing puppets.
A crowd of about 60,000, ranging from Indian families to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, packed Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in central Delhi. Audience members danced in their seats; the applause was spontaneous and enthusiastic.
“This opening is as good as it can be anywhere,” said Anil Chandel, 41, an executive. “It is spectacular.”
The exuberant ceremony was a welcome change from preparations for the games, which were notable for missed deadlines, accusations of corruption, filthy living quarters for athletes and the collapse of a footbridge that injured more than two dozen people.
As the audience filed into the stadium, many seemed to be hoping for the best, but worried about the worst.
“I will keep my fingers crossed,” said Harjeet Kandhari, 41, a garment business executive with his wife and two daughters. “Let us see how this all proceeds.”
India had promised a world-class spectacle when it won the bid in 2003 to host the quadrennial competition, but until Sunday there was little reason to believe anything close to that would occur. The budget for the games has ballooned to at least $2.8 billion from an estimated $210 million, and delays and problems were so endemic that some of the 71 teams attending threatened to pull out.
“This is much better than I expected,” said Manish Jain, a 38-year-old exporter. “With all the talks of mismanagement earlier, at least you do not see that today.”
However, Indian sports fans’ frustration with their government was on display. When the Indian official in charge of the games, Suresh Kalmadi, rose to give a speech, a prolonged chorus of boos rolled through the stadium. “India is ready, ready to host the Commonwealth Games,” Mr. Kalmadi said.
But in several cases “barely ready” would have been more apt. The new metro rail station outside Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, the main site for the games, opened on Sunday. On Friday night, workers were still putting finishing touches on other facilities, including unpacking and positioning hurdles for track events.
Several top-ranked athletes — citing injuries, scheduling problems or security concerns — pulled out in advance of the competition, which begins Monday with archery and badminton. There was speculation, though, that the problem-plagued preparations could have been a factor in their decisions.
The athletes’ village had its first case of dengue fever, The Associated Press reported Sunday. But the victim, a member of India’s lawn bowling team, has been in New Delhi since March and may have gotten it from outside the village, a hospital spokesman said. Dengue had been a concern for Indian officials, partly because the quarters were built near a breeding ground for the mosquitoes that spread the disease.
Security has been in full force in New Delhi in recent days, with an estimated 100,000 police officers as well as officers from the military and private security agencies, spread around the city. Snipers were positioned on the stadium roof during the opening ceremony, and patrons had been advised to arrive two hours early so they could be searched for a long list of prohibited items, including food, umbrellas and loose change.
Some major roads have been closed and regular bus service throughout the normally traffic-choked city has been reduced to cut down on gridlock during the games, leaving many working-class people at the mercy of rickshaw drivers, who have doubled their rates.
Sunday’s audience, for the most part, seemed willing to wait until then to focus on the scores of delays and difficulties leading up to the opening ceremony.
“All the other issues of corruption and delays we can take care later,” said Dr. Vinay Aggarwal, 54, who was attending with his son. “Now I only want that the games should be a success.”