Comm Games officials move into damage-control mode to counter claims of poor ticket sales

By Dennis Passa, AP
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Comm Games brass in damage-control mode over tix

NEW DELHI — Commonwealth Games officials have again gone into damage-control mode to counter criticism of poor ticket sales, sagging international television ratings and a growing list of problems that throw into question the event’s relevance as a major international sporting event.

There had been concerns that the start of the athletics competition would be delayed in what would have been the ultimate embarrassment for the games.

But Mike Fennell, president of the Commonwealth Games Federation, said that urgent repairs to the track at the main stadium had been completed and “all systems are go” for the start of the athletics competition later Wednesday.

Suresh Kalmadi, chairman of the local organizing committee, reported that an additional 50,000 tickets had been sold Tuesday, a day after saying tickets might have to be given away for free to fill venues. Kalmadi said faulty scales at the boxing competition that forced some boxers to needlessly drop weight had been checked, and “all 10 were found to be OK.”

The Commonwealth Games — an Olympic-style competition held every four years — bring together more than 6,000 athletes and officials from 71 countries and territories. India wanted the games, which ended up costing between $3 billion and $10 billion, to showcase its emergence as a growing economic power and possibly attract a future Olympics.

But construction delays, corruption allegations, concerns about security and heavy monsoons put preparations way behind schedule, with complaints about unfinished and filthy accommodations in the athletes’ village embarrassing the hosts.

Fennell admitted that all the negative attention had hurt.

“I think that a lot of the adverse publicity leading up to the games has turned off some people, there is no question about that,” Fennell said. “You can’t hide that. We need to rebuild it so the games can be successful.”

It’s also hurting outside India. Television ratings for rightsholders in sports-mad Australia are reported to be the lowest of the past four Commonwealth Games, and Fennell was asked whether the games were losing their relevance.

“It is wrong to draw that conclusion from this, we have this time zone problem, the scheduling of events, and just what was done for the promotion (of the coverage) I don’t know,” Fennell said. “The initial feedback for the opening ceremonies was fantastic, and sometimes in the early rounds the sports ratings are not all that high.”

The time zone difference, however, fits nicely into Australian television times.

The swim finals are scheduled for 4 p.m. local time each day, which is in nearly prime time — 8:30 p.m. — on Australia’s east coast. Australia traditionally dominates the swim event at the Commonwealth Games, and on Tuesday when Australia swept all three cycling events, the telecast times would have been mid to late-afternoon in Australia.

Kalmadi said sales were expected to improve because ticket booths had been placed at all venues. And he had to counter comments by ex-British rower Matthew Pinsent, who won four gold medals in rowing at four consecutive Olympics ending in 2004.

Pinsent said he was at the shooting competition on Tuesday when Olympic champion Abhinav Bindra gave India its first gold medal. Pinsent, who now works for rightsholder BBC television, said he estimated about 30 paying spectators were there. But Kalmadi said he was there and estimated the crowd at “several hundred.”

Kalmadi was then offered a chance by Pinsent to view the television network’s footage of the coverage so they could count the crowd together.

On Tuesday, the committee was told that a member of the Australian team had fallen sick from a meal at the athletes village. But Rick Aylett of the Australian company Delaware North said the comments were “unsubstantiated.”

Aylett said 700 independent food sample tests had come back negative, and that his company had served 270,000 meals thus far “and there had not been one issue or one formal complaint.”

“We did have a discussion with the CMO (chief medical officer) of the Australian team and he has acknowledged that that bug could be caught anywhere, and there has been no formal medical diagnosis of that particular athlete,” Aylett said. “So that is the end of the story.”

While 28 medals were to be decided later Wednesday, those not competing will have an easier opportunity to see one of the world’s greatest spectacles. Fennell said event organizers had chartered a daily train for athletes to go to the nearby city of Agra, the location of the Taj Mahal.

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