Monday 27 September 2010

What does the Commonwealth Games fiasco say about us

Over the last few days the Commonwealth Games has been prominent in both the mainstream and cycling press, although not from a sporting perspective. Most attention has been on the state of the facilities and on "will they, won't they" stories about individual athletes.

Earlier in the week we saw photo's of dirty beds and bathrooms, video reports of flooded apartment blocks and much reporting on the collapsed bridge. Most of these stories were accompanied by speculation of mismanagement and corruption on the part of the local organisers/politicians/companies. Most of them were presented in a tone of shock and surprise. British media outlets seemed to be particularly put out that their valiant athletes and officials had all of a sudden been put in a position where their health and safety was being compromised.

In recent days it seems that the Commonwealth Games communities various spin machines have kicked into action. Tonights news was filled with images of athletes arriving in Delhi and footage of pristine apartments, cleaned and polished and ready to greet those flying in from around the world. Reports suggest that the officials and people of Delhi have rolled their sleeves up over the last few days and, in best Blitz spirit, have pulled together to fix the mess.

I have grown deeply uncomfortable by the tone and content of these reports on many levels.

Fistly the whole story only exists because of a basic assumption underlying the world of elite sport. The notion that top level athletes and officials from countries such as Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, accustomed as they are to top class, lottery funded programmes and facilities, would have to endure anything but state-of-the-art facilities seems almost unthinkable. Over the last twenty or thirty years, major sporting tournaments have become showcase events. Host countries compete for the pleasure of spending billions of euro/dollars/pounds/rupees on bigger shinier, higher tech stadia and venues. Athletes, officials and journalists expect to be pampered and cossetted in a world of lavish facilities where they can focus on their moment of glory in comfort and luxury.

Is it reasonable for elite, and in some cases highly paid, sports people to expect such high standards when outside the security fences some of the worst poverty in the world is not too far away? Do those who, by accident of birth, had the opportunity to learn and train in relative luxury have the right to expect "five star" as one England official said on tonights news (he did go on to say that what he found was three star but that would do!)

A labourer carries a child in front of the lawn bowls venue at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi yesterday. Photograph: Saurabh Das/AP
I think the contrast was best illustrated to me by this photo from the Irish Times yesterday. While the athletes and officials were sitting in England whining about health and safety, the "army of volunteers and workers" mobilised to fulfil their needs was in reality a population of poorly paid, unskilled locals, labouring in conditions unacceptable in the west and presumably paid a pittance (or nothing at all in some cases according to reports).

Alongside the health and safety stories comes the allegations of local corruption and mismanagement. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the blame game would aim for such low hanging fruit. It might well be true but is that really how a major, international event, the show piece of a huge multinational body, is planned? When a country is told, seven years before the event, that they are to be hosts does the Commonwealth Games Federation then hop on a plane home and leave them to it?  Hardly!

I'm doing a project management course at the moment and one of the basic tenets of managing any project, let alone something as huge as the Commonwealth Games, is that stakeholders need to be, and need to make sure they are, properly informed of progress throughout the project life cycle. It is incredible that the Commonwealth Games Federation can claim to have been so clueless as to the progress of the building efforts in Delhi. Did they not check from time to time? Did they not have milestones at which everything was reviewed? It is pathetic to now hear top officials bravely offering to roll up their sleeves to help. Where were they sleeping up to now?

Equally, it's not all that convincing to hear individual athletes quoting fears of dengue fever as the reason why they won't be going. Most, if not all, Sky Team riders due to ride the Games have, individually of course, pulled out with that as one of their excuses. Of course their announcements being within hours of each other, and just after the BBC showed photos of dirty bathrooms, was co-incidental.

Now, I'm no expert, but the risk of dengue fever in Delhi is not news. Dengue, and may other tropical diseases, are a fact of life in places like that. If Geraint and Peter and Ian and their mates were uncomfortable at the prospect of being exposed to it they should have flagged that long before now and given more deserving compatriots the chance to prepare and travel to represent their countries. I'm sure there's no shortage of riders in the Isle of Man and Wales, who would normally never get a chance to ride for GB, but would jump at the chance for international experience. It feels like cycling's equivalent of footballers getting mysteriously injured just before international friendlies to me.

To be fair, not all of the stars have been acting quite so diva-like. It was refreshing to read that Cav will definitely ride, barring injury in Melbourne next weekend.

Ironically, given how the Commonwealth came about, this whole episode should open eyes about how the divided the world has become, not just in financial terms, but also in terms of expectations. As we dive deeper into recession is it time that we who have been spoiled with riches over the years should stand back and appreciate that what we take for granted is a privilege not enjoyed by many. The world is not all shiny and wi-fi enabled. Far from it.

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