Commonwealth Crisis

India is all over the news at the moment as it prepares to host the Commonwealth Games.  But not for the right reasons.

The Commonwealth Games was first held in 1930.  It is a sort of mini-Olympics between a unique group of countries: The Commonwealth of Nations.  To be eligible for this competition your nation must, at one time, have been a colony or protectorate of the British Empire.  Or be a British Dependency or Overseas Territory.  Or have special dispensation (Mozambique and Rwanda).  Or maybe even just like watching Blackadder or Eastenders?!

Betty Cuthbert at the first ever Commonwealth Games

The Games means that teams from places such as Guernsey, Jersey, Norfolk Ireland, Wales, Scotland or Northern Island can represent their homelands without being subsumed under the banner of their overbearing neighbours or political allegiance, (such as the United Kingdom or Australia).  As such, it is a unique celebration of the hugely varied cultures which were once all "pink on the map."  It is also the most visible activity of the Commonwealth of Nations, given that most of the Commonwealth's subjects would have no idea the Commonwealth existed were it not for the Games.

One of the main benefits to a city hosting the Games is exposure to the world, just as the Olympics is seen as a way for a country to show off its maturity in business, organisation and attraction.  Manchester and Melbourne hosted the Games in '02 and '06, respectively, and it helped raise the world's awareness of those cities, as well as being an economic boost.

The BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China (sometimes with the added "S" of South Africa) are peers and competitors in world trade: enormous nations which are forever on the cusp of becoming the next superpower and dominating the global economy.  They are using international sporting events to state their entrance on the world stage as serious, mature powers, able to manage the economic, logistic, security and image challenge that is a Cup or Games: Brazil will host the Football World Cup in 2014 and Rio is bidding for the 2016 Olympics; Russia is bidding to host the 2018 World Cup and Sochi will host the 2014 Winter Olympics; South Africa hosted the 2010 World Cup and Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics.

India has chosen to host the Commonwealth Games and the 2011 Cricket World Cup (with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh).  Neither of these events are as prestigious as the Olympics or Foootball World Cup, nor bring the accompanying money or exposure, but India is perhaps being cannier than might first appear.  It is a test case for India's ability to build big international events and venues.  But not being as large, nor logistically challenging as the other two events, India does not need to build as many new stadiums or complexes, meaning less expense and less risk of failure.  The drawback of this is that the success will not be as large, nor the exposure, nor will there be as much support from an international Oversight Committee.  This is particularly important when compared to the other near-fiasco of the Athens Olympics.  The Olympic Oversight Committee warned of cost and time issues, which were addressed in advance (although, perhaps, at the expense of the Greek economy).  The Commonwealth Oversight Committed, by comparison, isn't so well funded, nor so vocal, so it wasn't until it was nearly too late that the problems in Delhi were pointed out.  The Commonwealth Games organisation is much more down to the host nation than is the organisation of an Olympics, for the Olympics is a much bigger brand.

Over the last week, the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi have turned into something of a fiasco: pictures have been leaked of the athletes village unfinished and filthy; a bridge to the main stadium has collapsed; several top athletes including Usain Bolt will not be appearing; the monsoon has been heavy and late; tourist have been shot in Delhi.  India's biggest competitor (and regular comparison) in world economics and politics is China.  If we judge their potential as serious players on the world stage by their preparation for international events, India is currently a distinct second.

The bridge to the main stadium a week before the Games

But, as always in India, there is another side to this tale.  After all, the Games have not yet started.  Indians have a habit of leaving things to the last minute and the desired result appearing almost miraculously.  Legends abound of English cricket tours to India in the 80s, when players would arrive to spotless rooms, curiously smelling of fresh paint, with teams of painters seen dashing down the fire escape seconds after the players' arrivals.  And at this very moment, the Indian Army is hard at work rebuilding the bridge to Jawaharlal Nehru stadium.

And the Games have been part of an enormous rebuilding and improving project in Delhi: a new airport terminal has opened; the Metro provides public transport as good as any other city in the world; the train station has a new facade; even the backpackers' district of Paharganj looks better than ever (although when my girlfriend was there two months ago, the main street was rubble and the air in Delhi was as dusty as a sandstorm because of the construction).

Commonwealth Hoardings in Delhi

Other factors also help Delhi compare well with its Asian neighbour.  Whilst there have been slums being hidden by billboards, there haven't been the same high-profile cases of slum clearances and Compulsory Purchase Orders, nor the aggressive state monitoring of journalists that accompanied the run-up to Beijing.  And Delhi certainly guarantees an enthusiastic, fun and unique event for participant and visitor alike.  Indian supporters are some of the loudest and most colourful in the world.  The Opening Cermony was colourful, bright and genuinely represented the diversity and culture of India.  "Team Dancing" is something India has perfected through enormous logistics of Bollywood sets and this was a great opporunity to put those skills on show.  Whilst Beijing was certainly spectacular, there was almost a sense of "organised fun" about its atmosphere.  And the less said about the Atlanta games of 1992, in which most of the city seemed to be unaware of what was going on, the better.  The comparison on the BBC's Commonwealth coverage was "warm rather than regimented."

Despite all the panic, my nephew from Delhi just wobbles his head in that peculiarly Indian way and says, "This is the way in India.  We leave everything till the last minute... but the Games will be absolutely First Class.  If it weren't for all this drama, where would the excitement be?!"  If nothing else, India has made the story of these Games as exciting as any Bollywood storyline.