The first sporting battles of Delhi’s Commonwealth Games began today after a rousing opening ceremony that cheered organizers reeling from international criticism of a chaotic buildup to the 12-day event.
Swimmers, archers and badminton players were in action and there were no logistical hitches as competitors made their way to venues along specially created transport lanes, Tarlochan Singh, head of media and publicity for the games Organizing Committee, said by phone. Eight gold medals were up for grabs.
Yesterday, thousands of dancers, drummers and yoga performers had opened the city’s first major sporting event in 30 years with a display of Indian heritage and its status as a rising economic power, a reputation dented during the buildup by reports of uninhabitable accommodation for athletes and the embarrassing collapse of a stadium footbridge.
The “overwhelming performance is a statement to the world that India is capable of hosting major events,” said Boria Majumdar, a cricket historian and author. Still, “India needs to do a quite lot in the next 10 days” to win over doubters, he said. “There’s no room for complacency.”
India’s President Pratibha Patil and Britain’s Prince Charles declared the games open during a three-hour celebration at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, while Oscar-winning ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ composer A.R. Rahman sang the official games song and the theme tune from the movie. A giant helium-filled balloon with mirrors and lights lifted a huge image of Indian freedom icon Mahatma Gandhi into the air.
‘Dream Coming True’
“Our dream is coming true, India’s big moment is finally here,” Suresh Kalmadi, chairman of the Delhi Organizing Committee, said in a speech. “India is ready” to show the world its rise after overcoming many challenges in the run up to the 17-sport competition that runs until Oct. 14, he said.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh looked on as the competition involving 71 nations and territories got under way. He wanted India’s biggest sporting event in three decades to attract overseas investment. Instead, filthy accommodation for athletes, the collapse of a footbridge and monsoon floods that led teams to delay their arrival threatened to deter the investors needed to drive growth in Asia’s third-biggest economy, Moody’s Analytics said on Sept. 24.
The Organizing Committee suspended two top officials for alleged “financial irregularities,” while a third resigned, the panel’s spokesman Lalit Bhanot said on Aug. 5. Games officials, in the past two weeks, undertook a cleaning and rebuilding operation to have venues ready on time.
“The image of being corrupt and inefficient has gone around the world and that cannot be recovered whatever we may do at the last moment,” said Ajay K. Mehra, director of New Delhi’s Centre for Public Affairs.
The crowd jeered when Commonwealth Games Federation Chief Mike Fennell mentioned Kalmadi’s name in his address yesterday. Kalmadi said he expected the games to contribute to India’s $1.2 trillion economy, and leave a “fantastic legacy.” He thanked all the teams for standing by India amid its troubles.
India deployed 100,000 security personnel in New Delhi ahead of the official opening while markets, malls and businesses, many of which normally function on Sundays, shut. Streets near sport venues were almost deserted.
About 7,000 performers entertained 60,000 spectators inside the stadium as Buddhist monks shared the stage with musicians from across the country wearing white sarongs, horned headgear and turbans.
The balloon rose from the center of the stadium as the opening ceremony began, lifting huge Rajasthani puppets into the air. The names and flags of competing nations rolled along its sides as the athletes entered, many dressed in traditional clothing from Scottish kilts to African gowns. South Africa’s team blew vuvuzelas, the plastic horns that accompanied every soccer match in this year’s World Cup.
Gold-clad yoga practitioners twisted limbs while men played electric-blue sitars. Bollywood extravagance and the bustle of Indian village life gave way to solemnity as a march during Mahatma Gandhi’s challenge to British colonial rule was created from sand.
The government spent $4.6 billion upgrading stadiums, refurbishing roads, building overpasses, and power and water utilities to stage the event. About 15 kilometers (9.4 miles) of new metro line linking the stadium was opened yesterday, adding to the city’s urban rail network.
The event, held every four years and first staged in 1930, features 8,000 athletes and officials, most from the U.K. and its former colonies and dependencies.
Fennell said at a Sept. 25 press conference in Delhi he was disappointed with the Indian organizers and that the lack of preparedness for the sporting event has hurt the reputation of the country.
“A lot of damage has been done to India as a host country,” Fennell said. “I would hope at the end of all this, India would have learnt a great lesson.”