Let the Games Not Begin

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Manpreet Romana / AFP / Getty Images

Falling down A Games footbridge collapsed on Sept. 21

If New Delhi is India's glittering emerald city, Suresh Kalmadi must surely be its Wizard of Oz.

On Sept. 15, Kalmadi, a career politician, stood in the middle of Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in front of an 80-m-wide, $8.8 million, helium-filled balloon commissioned for the opening ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games. The aerostat is his pride and joy, and he stood before it to try to reassure a group of journalists that everything was under control. The Commonwealth Games begin on Oct. 3 and will be the largest sporting event ever held in India. But the city is still furiously finishing some of the venues. Many top athletes will not be attending, thanks to weeks of reports about construction delays, shoddy work, an outbreak of mosquito-borne diseases and an athletes' village deemed "uninhabitable" by visiting delegates.

Glossing over all that, Kalmadi, the chairman of the Games' organizing committee, confidently predicted that New Delhi would be "100% ready." At least that's what I think he said. It was difficult to hear him over the din of construction inside the stadium, and I was distracted by the workmen digging into the middle of the track right behind him. "There's no work going on, except a little bit of polishing," Kalmadi baldly said. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

This was only one of the astonishingly oblivious statements to come from officials in New Delhi as the Commonwealth Games approach. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Kalmadi and other officials have claimed that construction problems are "minor" (a footbridge near the main stadium collapsed on Sept. 21, injuring at least 23 people), that the dengue outbreak is a normal seasonal spike (there are thousands of cases — several times more than previous years) and, most alarming, that the city is secure. (Two men from Taiwan were injured on Sept. 19 by gunmen targeting a tourist bus; meanwhile, the security dry run was repeatedly delayed.) Nevertheless, Kalmadi has promised that New Delhi's Commonwealth Games will be "better than the Beijing Olympics."

He might be right about that last point, but not in the way he intended. Before the 2008 Olympics, many wondered if the influx of visitors and worldwide attention would let a breath of fresh air into China's hermetically sealed politics. That didn't quite happen. The Beijing Olympics went off without significant protests and few signs that the Chinese people's well-earned pride in successfully hosting the Olympics would raise expectations of their own government.

Exactly the opposite is happening in India. Before the Commonwealth Games have even begun, India has gone through an unusually frank display of public soul-searching about its failure to live up to its own hype. India's biggest newspapers and television stations — not just the left-leaning ones — have been competing to top each other with scoops about cost overruns, safety violations and the use of child labor at Games sites. The front page of the Hindustan Times recently featured a photograph of three barefoot, barely clothed construction workers, two of them dangling a third upside down by his legs into a pit. The wry caption: "Aspiring superpower at work."

Indian politicians have been pleading for New Delhi's residents to come together and put on a good show for the world. But the city is having none of it. A band of local graffiti artists have taken to the streets, tagging construction sites with slogans like "I hope the Games are a disaster." Instead of buying tickets to the sporting events, families who can afford it are booking "Commonwealth Games escape" packages out of town. Even some members of Parliament are breaking ranks. Mani Shankar Aiyar, a former Sports Minister, said outside Parliament that the $7.3 billion spent for the Games (including the cost for the city's new airport terminal) should have been better utilized elsewhere. "I'll be happy if the Games are spoiled," he said.

The athletes who do show up will find a city that has been transformed by the Games in an unexpected way. New Delhi's rich and poor are finally united, if only in their hatred for the Games' inept management and in their love for the event's one lasting legacy: an expanded metro system. It will take their combined effort to turn New Delhi's righteous anger into a sustained resolve to hold their leaders accountable. But the city has already taken the first step on that long and treacherous yellow brick road. Like Dorothy and her companions, New Delhi's residents may well find hidden reserves of wit, compassion and courage. Who needs the Wizard?