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Commonwealth Games head sees improved conditions

NEW DELHI – The first foreign competitors arrived Friday for the troubled Commonwealth Games, where frantic last-minute work by an army of cleaners was said to be paying off with improved conditions at the fetid athletes’ village.

The English hockey and lawn bowling teams landed in New Delhi, and although they will be staying in hotels before moving to the village, their arrival was an enormous relief for India, whose image has been battered for days by negative publicity about filthy accommodations, unfinished construction and security problems for the games.

Fears that some countries would pull out of the games that begin Oct. 3 eased Friday when New Zealand and Australia — both harsh critics of India’s preparations — said their athletes would attend.

Some problems still needed to be resolved before the start of the Olympic-style competition that brings together about 7,000 athletes and officials from 71 countries and territories. And the criticism did not stop, with the head of Australia’s Olympic Committee saying India should not have been awarded the games in the first place.

The past few days of chaos have badly battered India’s reputation and its pride, as organizers struggled — all too publicly — with the filthy athletes’ complex, dangerous construction, swarms of disease-carrying mosquitoes and security fears.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held an emergency meeting Thursday night and demanded that officials ensure the games were successful.

“With only a few days left, the prime minister took personal initiative, saying that no stone should be left unturned,” said Prithviraj Chavan, an official in Singh’s office, told the Press Trust of India News Agency. “We are all very concerned.”

City officials deployed as many as 1,000 mop- and bucket-carrying workers to clean the village and make repairs. Hundreds more workers were scattered across the city, doing everything from painting lines on roads to laying fresh grass in front of officials’ houses to spraying mosquitoes. Police roadblocks and teams of soldiers with assault rifles have become commonplace.

Commonwealth Games Federation President Mike Fennell, who had rushed to New Delhi on Wednesday to deal with the troubles, said “considerable improvements have been made within the village.”

Fennell toured the village Friday and met top government officials to discuss the preparations. The work must continue “with the greatest urgency,” he said in a statement.

Some roads remain pitted with deep potholes after weeks of heavy monsoon rains; water was still standing in the basements of some buildings at the village; many medical workers for the games were reportedly still waiting for their passes; and a north Indian farmer caste — who have long demanded they be officially listed as low caste to gain more government benefits — were threatening to bring chaos to the city on Oct. 3 by flooding the roads with cattle.

Craig Hunter, England’s chef de mission, said he was glad to see the work in the village, but added “we are in a phase of looking at the detail, making sure that fire and safety equipment and procedures are in place and that the apartments are clean and safe.”

His upbeat comments were tempered with warnings.

“Our next wave of athletes arrives Sunday and a lot still needs to happen before then. So more and swift action is required,” he said in a statement.

The athletes echoed his comments.

“The flats are spacious, which is good for a major games, but there are bits and pieces to be done to bring them up to standard,” English hockey player Ben Middleton said in the statement. “A couple of days will make a difference.”

The games were supposed to be a source of pride for India, a way to show off the last two decades of modernization. But corruption scandals, delays in getting facilities ready and the conditions at the village turned the event into an embarrassment for the emerging Asian power.

Friday’s optimism signaled a major change in mood from earlier this week, when team officials expressed horror at the conditions at the village — including excrement in rooms and problems with plumbing, wiring and furnishings.

Organizers also have struggled with financial woes, an outbreak of dengue fever, the collapse of a footbridge leading to the main stadium and security fears after the Sept. 19 shooting of two tourists outside one of New Delhi’s top attractions. A Muslim militant group took responsibility for the shooting.

The cost of the games, pegged at less than $100 million in 2003, has skyrocketed, with estimates ranging from $3 billion to more than $10 billion.

Several teams initially deferred traveling to New Delhi, and a few sports officials even suggested the games might be postponed or canceled. But England’s decision Thursday to send its more than 500 athletes was a huge boost to the event.

At least nine athletes have withdrawn from the games in recent days because of health and safety concerns, and Australian Olympic Committee President John Coates said India should not have been given the games.

“The problem is the Commonwealth Games Federation is under-resourced. It doesn’t have the ability to monitor the progress of cities in the way the (International) Olympic Committee does,” he said.

IOC President Jacques Rogge told The Associated Press in a Friday interview that India’s chances for hosting the Olympics should not be written off.

“I think I can hardly make a judgment before the games have even started,” he said. “Let’s give them the chance to prove they can stage good games. It would be with a last-ditch effort and it probably would be costly, but let’s hope they can fulfill that.”

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AP Sports writer Stephen Wilson contributed to this report from London.

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