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Indian laborers pull a hand cart of cement sacks for construction work in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2010. Alarming delays in completion of the athletes' village has prompted fresh fears about the viability of the Commonwealth Games, with a New Zealand delegate saying Tuesday that next month's event may not go ahead. The games are scheduled to be held from Oct. 3-14. (Manish Swarup)
Indian laborers pull a hand cart of cement sacks for construction work in New Delhi, India, Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2010. Alarming delays in completion of the athletes' village has prompted fresh fears about the viability of the Commonwealth Games, with a New Zealand delegate saying Tuesday that next month's event may not go ahead. The games are scheduled to be held from Oct. 3-14. (Manish Swarup)

Stephen Brunt

Huge shadows loom over New Delhi Add to ...

Well, it certainly sounds like a fiasco.

Tuesday, those overseeing Canada's participation in the Commonwealth Games painted a rather pessimistic picture of the landscape in New Delhi, with opening ceremonies less than two weeks away.

Remember that these are folks who have a vested interest in the event's success, understanding that as a C-list stop on the global multisport-fest calendar, the Commonwealth Games needs all the help it can get. And heaping criticism on other countries is generally frowned upon in the world of amateur athletics, since what comes around does indeed tend to go around.

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Consider that, and then consider Dr. Andrew Pipe, the president of Commonwealth Games Canada, complaining during a conference call with the media about the "glacial" pace of preparations, accusing the Indian government and organizers of "indifference bordering on the intransigent," and suggesting that the entire nation of India "risks considerable embarrassment" if it doesn't get its act together pronto.

Those are fighting words, only slightly softened by diplomatic niceties, and they have been echoed by other sports officials from other Commonwealth countries. In private conversations, many a rocket must have been directed up many a backside before the decision was taken to go public.

The main problem in India seems to be the athletes' village, where 24 hours before the first Canadian competitors are scheduled to board their flights for New Delhi, such luxuries as power and plumbing are not universally available.

(Mike Fennell, the president of the Commonwealth Games Federation, described the village as being in "shocking condition.")

There are other concerns as well: a general lack of cleanliness ("People have been defecating in all sorts of places," said Mike Hunter, chef de mission for the English team, again describing the village); a pedestrian bridge collapsed Tuesday at the main stadium, amid accusations of shoddy-to-dangerous workmanship on Games venues; security issues are rampant (on Tuesday an Australian television crew managed to walk into the main stadium unmolested with a bomb detonator, just to prove that they could); a record outbreak of dengue fever.

Some of those issues, it must be acknowledged, may have more to do with geography and cultural dissonance than with organization, per se. And when it comes to putting on sports extravaganzas, we are certainly not without sin in this country. Our cauldron malfunctioned. Our snow melted. Our luge track was deadly. We put Wayne Gretzky in the back of a pickup truck.

And 34 years ago - as Dr. Pipe very tactfully acknowledged yesterday - we were still pouring concrete on the day of the Montreal Olympic opening ceremonies.

That said, there is a difference between failing to complete an elaborate, ridiculously ambitious and ridiculously expensive stadium that ought to have had a neon "HUBRIS" sign flashing from the unfinished tower, and being unable to provide working toilets for the competitors.

But this kind of shortfall was inevitable, eventually. It has been coming. And were it not New Delhi now, it would be somewhere else in the very near future, in a city and country that paid too much, that promised too much, that was unwilling or unable to divert the necessary resources, that simply bit off more than it could chew.

There was a close call, when Greece staged the Summer Olympics in 2004 (and the residual economic impact of those Games certainly contributed to the country's current tribulations). There were times when it seemed unlikely that South Africa could pull off the 2010 World Cup - it did so, finally, with a whole lot of outside help, and now will deal with the legacy, most notably a bunch of pretty-much-useless stadiums that will cost tens of millions a year just to maintain. And coming, in 2014 and 2016, Brazil will attempt to stage the largest sporting events on the planet, the World Cup and Summer Games, back to back. Best of luck to them.

In India you had the perfect storm: a colossus of a country but still one facing Third World challenges; an event that is costly to hold, but that doesn't produce Olympic-scale revenues; and the bureaucratic and political intransigence that Pipe mentions, which has now caused gentle prodding to escalate into de facto threats from major players to pull out.

Will these Commonwealth Games go on? Scott Stevenson, the director of sport for Commonwealth Games Canada, who is already on site in India, said yesterday that there was a 50-50 chance that the first Canadian athletes, scheduled to depart Wednesday, would be told to stay home and wait for instructions. (Relocating them isn't an option, because their security can only be guaranteed within the safe haven of the village.)

Because the consequences of walking away would be grave, in terms of sport, in terms of the future of the Commonwealth Games, in terms of political relationships with a growing economic power, here's betting that in the end everyone tries to make a go of it.

But it won't be pretty. And it may well be a tipping point.

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