There is no doubt that England will send a full team to the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, their team manager told journalist Steven Downes in wide-ranging interview today, as the clock ticks down to 200 days to go to to the Opening Ceremony.
Craig Hunter, England’s chef de mission for Delhi, was speaking on his return from an exhaustive nine-day visit to the Indian capital, where he and a five-person delegation that included Sir Andrew Foster, the chairman of Commonwealth Games England, and chief executive Ann Hogbin, visited every competition venue, while also observing the hockey World Cup and tests events in archery and boxing.
Hunter dismissed previous reports that concerns over security issues in India would force England to fail to send a team to the Commonwealth Games for the first time in the event’s 80-year history. “England will categorically be sending a team to the Commonwealth Games in Delhi later this year,” he said.
England will be taking a team of 560, more than its squad for the 2006 Commonwealth Games in 2006, to compete across the programme’s 17 sports. “There’s no doubt that there are lots of athletes who see Delhi as a vital developmental stepping stone towards the 2012 Olympics in London, and they are very keen to be in the team,” Hunter said.
He shrugged off the possibility that several high-profile track and field athletes, including double world champion multi-eventer Jessica Ennis, might miss the Delhi Games because it comes so late in the year, starting on October 3.
“Let’s wait and see who decides to go and who doesn’t when the time comes,” Hunter said. “Dame Kelly Holmes, the president of Commonwealth Games England, talks about one year when she came back after an injury and competed at the Commonwealth Games and it saved her career, and of course she went on to win double Olympic gold.
“She says, ‘Never say never’. So we’ll see who goes.
“Of course, individuals will be able to decide if they wish to go, for whatever reason, and we will respect personal choices. But the competitions out there will be very important for many athletes keen to get experience in a multi-sport Games ahead of 2012.”
Hunter, a former Olympic swimming team manager, is more confident after his latest visit to Delhi than he was after spending 18 days there last October. However, he harbours significant concerns about the readiness of the Aquatics Centre in Delhi.
“Of all the competition sites out there, and we saw them all, Aquatics is the one causing most concern,” Hunter said. “To be realistic, they will be ready, but they still have to move the roof in to place over the main pool, and that is a massive engineering job.”
Hunter draws comparison with the pool for the 2004 Athens Olympics. Originally build for the 1991 world championships, plans to retrofit a roof over the pool before the Olympics were abandoned due to cost overruns and building delays.
Hunter characterised Delhi, a city of 14 million people, more than twice the population of London, as “an enormous building site, there’s works going on everywhere, even without all the massive Games projects”, but he and his team were satisfied on this latest visit that much progress has been made with the roads, Metro railway and other infrastructure.
Although some attending the hockey World Cup complained of regular power cuts affecting the venue and media centre in Delhi, the Commonwealth Games organisers, Hunter says, have made contingency plans which include massive generators at every venue, operating throughout the Games.
“We have built up a great working relationship with the Indians, and there’s no doubt that they will stage a unique Games – as different from Melbourne as Melbourne was from Manchester. And that’s one of the outstanding features of visiting different countries and cultures for events such as this.
“There’s been massive progress since we were last there in October. There is little doubt that they are significantly behind schedule. But the main stadium is progressing well, and it was clear from the quality of the presentations that were made to us in various seminars we attended that there’s a lot of joined-up thinking going on, so that related issues between the Village, catering and transport are all being addressed.
“Having seen every competition site, we believe it will all be ready,” Hunter said.
“The way they are approaching it is that it is little different from an Indian wedding – as long as everything is ready before the bride arrives, then everything will be fine.”