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What Happened to the Commonwealth Games?

It started as the British Empire Games in 1930. It still begins with an official message from the Queen that travels by hand from Buckingham Palace. It still culminates with a tribute to the British Military that would put the old Red Square parades to shame. It is the Commonwealth Games (CWG) and its goal from the outset has been to use sports to create goodwill between the United Kingdom and the various outposts of ye olde empire.     

As the Reverend Astley Cooper first proposed in 1891, a "Pan-Britannic-Pan-Anglican Contest and Festival every four years [could act as] a means of increasing the goodwill and good understanding of the British Empire.” Today this sporting festival involves 71 countries and a series of games that spring from the UK like lawn bowling, rugby seven, and netball.    

I don’t know if the CWG has created goodwill, but as the 2010 Games are set to start in Delhi, we are getting a very good understanding of empire, at least the 21st century variant. The games are teetering on an unprecedented implosion and the problem is not just that India, a country where 46% of the children are underweight, is spending $2.5 billion on athletic facilities alone. The problem is not just that India, a country where 42% of the people live under the World Bank poverty line of $1.25 a day, promised $100,000 to every country’s delegation to secure the games (what is called in less refined circles “a bribe.”) And the problem is not just that this state of affairs raises the question about whether India, with all it’s nouveau economic might, should be playing footstool for the inert Queen’s “Empire Games.”

The games might not go on because the CWG facilities built at great economic and social cost have been flagged as a serious health hazard. In preparing the various arenas, dozens of workers have been grievously injured in accidents due to faulty materials and equipment. This week alone a ceiling collapsed at the weightlifting venue and a bridge crumbled outside the main staging ground, Nehru Stadium, injuring 27.

Commonwealth Games President, Michael Fennell, expressed in writing his “great concern” over the current situation. "Many nations that have already sent their advanced parties to set up within the village have made it abundantly clear that, as of the afternoon of September 20, the Commonwealth Games village is seriously compromised," he said.

Mike Hooper, the CWG chief executive, sniffed, "the village is filthy… one can't occupy the rooms. There is building dust and rubble and the toilets are not working. Reports of excrement being found are true….{It’s not fit] for human habitation.”

The chairperson of the Commonwealth Games Council for Wales, Anne Ellis, raised the unprecedented prospect of canceling it altogether. [We will see how London handles the 2012 Olympics for example, and recoil anew without the comfort of xenophobia.]

There is more than a little dollop of paternalistic racism in CWG officials’ assessments of Delhi. The critiques that matter, though, come from inside of India where the Commonweath Games are called the “Corporate Wealth Games.” Currently, India is suffering through one of the worst ever outbreaks of Dengue Fever, which spreads through mosquitoes, exacerbated from a particularly harsh monsoon season.

Pranav Jani, an American professor living in Delhi, wrote, “many are saying [the outbreak comes is due] to the massive digging and construction from the upcoming CWG.” You will hear CWG officials complain about Dengue. You will hear athletes raise it as a health concern and decline to compete. But you won’t hear their complicity.

Regardless, if the CWG bureaucrats want to vacate responsibility for the state of affairs every day, the Indian press discusses the problems in grand detail. This is the first time India has ever aimed to host an event of this magnitude. The country's leaders are aiming to accomplish what China did with the 2008 Olympics, South Africa with the 2010 World Cup, and what Brazil hopes to do with the 2016 Olympics – namely, demonstrate that they are willing to and pull out all the stops to raise their international prestige at put on a good show

There is a reason why the so called BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China) are the 21st century hosts for these elaborate sporting spectacles. One reason is that they are willing to do whatever it takes to make the games happen. That means repression. That means massive debt-public works projects. In China, we saw the price of this, with two million people displaced from Beijing. In South Africa, a million-strong public sector strikes mark the hangover after the party. In Brazil, a police helicopter was shot down over the favelas, in October 2009, just south west of an Olympic Zone.  In Athens, before the 2004 games, anywhere between 40 and 150 construction workers died as the International Olympic Committee deadlines hovered.

In India, we see similar stories, As Ravi Chaudhary reported, “On the 7th of July 2010, during work hours, a government funded demolition team took bulldozers to the Yamuna Khada school (funded by donations) in order for it to be ruthlessly demolished. Those who attended and worked at the school were given three hours to vacate the property with no alternative. Police were present along with the construction teams and were seen destroying whatever could be demolished by hand in order to put fear into local residents. Many were removed with physical force."

And yet, the world has looked away, because the trains have always run on time; to put it another way, the games went off without a hitch and the body count was ignored. Just as in 1968 in Mexico City, when hundreds of students and workers were killed before the games and the world looked away, it is seen by organizers as a plus - not a minus - that such extreme prejudice can be introduced with impunity. In India, we are seeing how this process of rapidfire development on the quick has crossed the line that divides the development from the spectacle. Now not only are dissidents and workers endangered, the athletes themselves are imperiled as well. For the first time since World War II, the show may not go on. But this time, the war is the show and the show is the war.

[Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing Contact him at]


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