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India's not-so-friendly Commonwealth Games

NBC News's Jenny Wivell

LONDON-Have you ever wondered why some countries play cricket while the U.S. plays baseball? Why some opt for rugby instead of American football?

It all has to do with the Commonwealth – a collection of 54 sovereign states around the globe, all but two of which were former British colonies. As the British Empire faded these nations banded together in pursuit of common goals. And now, they regularly compete in rather a lot of quintessentially English sports.

These so-called “Friendly Games,” though, aren’t so friendly this year.

The opening of the Commonwealth Games in India’s New Delhi is just days away, but with the park still looking more like a building site than an international sports venue, several nations are threatening to pull out. Collapsing bridges, flooded basements and a dengue fever outbreak top the list of catastrophes.

Imagine that same scenario just a few days before the start of the Olympics, because that’s what this is like for members of the Commonwealth. New Zealand, Canada and Scotland, to name a few, have so little confidence in this year's games set to start on Oct. 3 they haven’t even left home yet.

With Queen Elizabeth II installed at the head of the Commonwealth family, Britain is usually proud of her longstanding association with India.

And Indians around the world have had every reason to be proud, too, what with their homeland being hailed one of the fastest growing economic powers in the world.

‘I hope they fail’
But the feeling now in London, home of many a leading Indian businessmen, is one of dismay and shame.

“I am extremely embarrassed about this. India’s reputation will suffer,” Moni Varma, the founder of the multi-million dollar Veetee Food Group, told me. “If (India) manages to pull off the Games, and I don’t think it will, all we’ll get is a patch-up job.”

“It’s been badly organized. It’s rife with corruption. India should admit it’s failed and call the whole thing off,” he said.

Alpesh Patel, an asset manager of Indian origin, sounds distinctly lacking in patriotism.

“I hope they fail. If they don’t pull this off there will be a massive public outcry and that’s what they need,” he told me. “The public sector in India is guilty of undue arrogance and complacency and the politicians need a wake-up call.”

Not every member of India’s business diaspora is hanging their heads in shame, though.

Dr Avtar Lit, the chief executive of the Sunrise Group, Britain’s largest asian broadcasting corporation, backs his birthplace to the hilt.

“The games will be fantastic,” said the entrepreneur, who already has his ticket for the opening ceremony. “Things move very fast in India and there are armies of engineers, decorators and builders ready to transform the site. What takes the rest of the world 180 days to complete takes India five.”

The competitors, at least, hope he’s right.

With the Americans, the Russians and the Chinese not privy to this particularly medals party the prospect of gold vastly improves for the other athletes.

Why apologize?
So while some are hanging their heads in shame, others in the Indian community don’t feel they should apologize to fellow members of the Commonwealth for the parade of glitches leading up to the games.

“India doesn’t feel it needs to give explanations to what it considers to be minor countries like New Zealand, Scotland and Wales,” Sunrise’s Lit says. “What we really care about is that England and Australia will be there.”

One thing all the business leaders agree on though is that this won’t damage business relations in the long run. Varma even thinks it could be a good thing.

“It brings India’s inadequacies to the fore and tells overseas investors there are problems with India’s infrastructure, but things which have been slowly improving will happen a lot faster now,” he said.

As Patel says: “This whole affair reminds India and the rest of the world it has a long way to go. At the moment more money is being invested in the country than it can use, but the problem is the wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few.”

What of Dr Avtar Lit? Well he remains stoically determined. “The proof of the pudding will be in the eating and it will be alright on the opening night.”

Let’s hope so because although the race is on you can’t help wondering if, even with a sprint finish, India’s first Commonwealth Games won’t make it past the post.