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Delhi in race against time

NEW DELHI, March 17 – With seven months to go until the start of the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, the partially completed main stadium is a messy building site and the swimming complex a pile of rubble.

Infrastructure projects linked to the Games, including flyovers and metro rail network extensions, are badly lagging. And, with the monsoon expected to arrive in June and July, preparations could be blown further off course.

Outside the Commonwealth Games office, the countdown clock is ticking down to the October 3 start of an event that India hopes will showcase its ability to organise major sports events and put it on course to host an Olympics.

Instead, it risks a debacle, with nervousness growing as deadlines slip repeatedly, particularly for the main Jawaharlal Nehru stadium and the Shyama Prasad Mukherjee swimming complex.

"The deadlines are being pushed further every time," Mike Hooper, chief executive of the London-based Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF), which owns and controls the Games, told AFP in an interview.

"In October last year we were told most of the venues will be ready by December, except the Jawaharlal Nehru and swimming stadiums which they said would be ready by March. Now that deadline has shifted to June.

"We struggle to understand that. If the venue construction programme does not adhere to what are self-imposed deadlines now, it will impact adversely the operational obligations."

He and others involved in the organisation stress that building the venues is one thing: testing and getting them ready to host thousands of athletes and spectators is another.

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"We need to test their operational readiness at least two months before the start of the Games," Hooper said.

Hooper’s concerns were echoed by CGF president Michael Fennell, who took a first-hand look at all the venues last week and went away a worried man.

"There remains quite a high level of concern about some of the venues being completed in time so that proper test events can be held," he told reporters in New Delhi.

"There is a lot of work still to be done. We still have areas of concern and we have discussed these openly and frankly with the organising committee."

The Indian organisers have been maintaining their line that everything will be ready in time.

Games Organising Committee chairman Suresh Kalmadi has compared the process to an Indian wedding in which everything looks disorganised from the outside but comes together at the last minute.

"There is no need to push the panic button," he was quoted as saying by the Press Trust of India news agency.

"We are going to have the best-ever Commonwealth Games. I would like to assure the entire country that all pending work will be completed within the deadlines.

"The Delhi Games would be better than Melbourne and Manchester. We will show the world what we are capable of."

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A sports ministry official coordinating with various Games’ committees scoffed at Kalmadi’s tall claims.

"Kalmadi does not know what he is talking about," he said, requesting not to be named.

"The Games were awarded to us way back in 2003. If only the officials had planned in a better way, things would not have come to a head.

"But they have been spending all of their energies in ego clashes with one another," he said, referring to Kalmadi’s ugly spat with Hooper in public last year.

Kalmadi had objected to Hooper’s continued presence in New Delhi, saying he was of "no use" to the organising committee. The outburst prompted Sports Minister Manohar Singh Gill to broker a truce in London.

Both Kalmadi and Hooper claim they have "moved on" since that slanging match.

"Kalmadi now refers to me as his good friend," laughed Hooper. "We have said let’s focus on the issues and make sure everything is done in a timely manner. "After all, all of us want the same outcome — to have a great Games!"

One foreign contractor working on the stadiums, who asked not to be named, is in no doubt that preparations are heading for a dramatic conclusion.

"It really is going to go down to the wire," he told AFP.

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