Snakes at the games – and how the langurs will save the day

WHAT would a major sporting event be without the preliminary hullabaloo about the venue? It won’t be ready; its cost has over-run; there are terrorists in the bushes; it’s too expensive.

Where’s the legacy? The voracious demands of 24-hour news have a lot to answer for.

We had it for the Athens Olympics, and for the World Cup in South Africa. It’s a constant refrain for Euro 2012, particularly in the Ukraine, and the leitmotif for London. Just about the only Olympiads which went smoothly were Sydney in 2000 and Beijing in 2008. Who, now, remembers that the great pre-game scare for China two years ago was the killer smog? It didn’t happen.

But even by modern standards of hysteria the furore over the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, which start on Sunday, is a lollapalooza. The city’s chief minister, the splendidly-named Sheila Dikshit, could be forgiven for mouthing, like a mantra, the old Kenneth Williams line: “infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me.”

The controversy over the games, once billed as a showcase for India’s new status as an engine of growth for the comatose global economy, started with concern over ramshackle conditions as the €180m athletes’ village was dismissed as “unfit for human habitation.” Then, just to prove the point a bed collapsed under the weight of a boxer who weighs only 7st 12lb (50kg). Shock, horror around the world.

There’s a polluted river running next to the complex, so at least one participant (presumably after googling Dengue Fever) withdrew citing “health fears.”

Then a footbridge collapsed catching the attention of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and prompting them to issue a statement which (take a deep breath): “raises serious concerns on the structural quality, viability and safety of venues and are indicative of the gross violations of building codes and regulations and the level of adherence to ethical professional practices.”

In the city centre two Taiwanese tourists were shot when a motorbike passenger fired at a bus outside the Jama Masjid, the famous 450-year-old “world-reflecting mosque.”

Despite attempts by police to discount terrorist links they were finally obliged to acknowledge that the attack was the work of Indian mujahedeen.

Enter Control Risks, the UK-based, multi-national security advisor to corporations, to warn that diverting resources to protecting main stadia would leave India without the capacity to ensure the integrity of “soft” targets. The firm has advised its clients to stay away from tourist attractions, public places and government buildings, and not to travel by public transport.

Now, I may be wrong on this, but isn’t this a condition of modern life everywhere but in a police state? In mainland Britain the threat assessment from international terrorism stands at “severe”, and has for some time. This means that an attack from international terrorists is “highly likely” and is one notch below the most serious form of warning – “critical” – which signals that an attack is imminent.

The Commonwealth Games is not one of the world’s most eye-catching competitions, and in many ways seems an anachronistic relic of the days of the British Empire involving 71 nations, many of which share little in common in 2010. But the combined population of the participating countries is 2.1 billion, roughly one in three people on the planet, across all six inhabited continents.

More than half of them live on the sub-continent, the host for the games which have produced some notable performances over the decades, none more so than in 1974 in Christchurch when Tanzanian Filbert Bayi set a new world record ahead of New Zealander John Walker and Kenyan Ben Jipcho in what many people consider the greatest front-running 1500m race of all time.

There’s been more than a whiff of old-style patrician racism in some of the comments levelled at the organisers by, in the main, white Anglo-Saxon officials, and they would do well to wait for the London Olympics to be a success before scrabbling up the moral high ground.

The president of South Africa’s athletics association struck the more pragmatic note when he said: “If the athletes are unhappy with their rooms because they have not been swept, they must take off their jackets and sweep them themselves. And when I get there on Friday, if a toilet is not clean, I will clean it myself.”

That’s the spirit. And there’s the promise of plenty of diverting activity to come if we remain positive. Where else would groups of snake charmers be employed to persuade deadly cobras (variously measured at anything from three feet to 10 feet in length by enterprising journalists) away from the sports facilities for a bounty of 1,000 rupees per reptile (that’s about €16.50 a pop. Would you do that job at that price? No, me neither).

But the star attraction of the Commonwealth Games has to be the langur monkeys. They’ve been hired to sort out common Indian bonnet monkeys, which have been known to attack humans. They’re a kind of simian Fighting Ben Tracey from Dover, a bouncer who likes to take on 20 opponents at a time.

What’s not to like? If the trackside action fails, turn the cameras on them.



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