HOST CITY speaks to the overlay experts that helped carry Delhi over the finish line to successfully make its debut on the stage of world class multi-sport events by hosting the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games
Of all the fierce competitions that caught the world’s attention during the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the one that will surely be remembered most in years to come is the one in which the organisers overcame major obstacles, heavy criticism and negative perceptions in the final sprint to prepare infrastructure for the event.
For foreign companies and experts involved in the planning and delivery of the event, the project was a great adventure. Samantha Cotterell of Designsport was the expert overlay advisor appointed to the organising committee. “Designsport’s experience was very ‘invigorating’,” says Cotterell with a sense of humour, “And reaching the finish line in such splendour made the whole experience extremely rewarding.” “These will be the best Games ever,” organising committee chairman Suresh Kalmadi could be heard saying. This is a cliché that requires context, as every Games delivers its own standard, which indeed is what Delhi did. Against all odds it delivered a moving and rewarding debut on the stage of multisport events, catapulting India into a new historical moment and offering the Commonwealth Games Federation a product that few of its member countries will be able to match.
A pantheon of Hindu Gods on their side
“In the corridors of the organizing committee one could often hear the expression ‘Luckily India has many gods!’ Of course, for much of the time leading up to the event we needed all the godly assistance we could get,” says Cotterell.
According to Designsport, during the years of preparation for the Games the major challenge was the Indian bureaucracy and the lack of a streamlined structure in place to implement and monitor the delivery process. This meant that potential problems were unforeseen and everything took much longer to achieve. But the gods indeed must have been overseeing the process for, despite the many challenges, the project was a great success.
In the last couple of months before the opening ceremony, Delhi was hit by the heaviest monsoons in decades. This further delayed construction works, brought some projects to a permanent standstill and forced the organizing committee to find alternative venues at the last minute. This unforeseen obstacle slowed down the ability of the overlay contractors to take possession of sites from government agencies to be able to carry out their part of the works. This amounted to millions of dollars worth of projects.
As Chief Minister of Delhi Mrs Sheila Dikshit appealed to Lord Indra to stop the downpour, the combination of the rains and the heat brought an outbreak of dengue fever which took a toll on the health of many, putting scores of workers out of action and seriously impacting the delivery of the Games.
Cotterell explains that one of the most amusing obstacles that were faced was the role of Delhi Police. In the years leading up to the event the organising committee did not have adequate security design input at planning stage. Cotterell says: “We trained our team in international security standards, taking what would normally happen in an Olympic Games as our parameter. But then when the Delhi Police were finally mobilised to take charge of the security of the event, we were in full overlay construction mode.
“The games readiness was already under enormous pressure due to delays, rains and dengue fever and the police arrived having their own ideas on how they thought the events should run. Much to our alarm, police could be found on site improvising themselves as overlay designers.”
According to Cotterell, this posed a threat to the successful operations of the games. The Delhi Police are an extremely impenetrable body – to be able to effect change one had to appeal in writing to the highest authority before the command could trickle down to the site and the designs be rectified.
Samantha worked with the highest authorities to explain the reasons for and requirements of the proposed design, and the safety implications of allowing police to affect that design without taking into consideration the ‘big picture’ and stadium operations.
One of the highest profile overlay projects, under the responsibility of Designsport, was the operational design and construction of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, hosting the opening and closing ceremonies and the athletics competition, where the entrance and exit areas had to accommodate the safe movement of 60,000 people.
Samantha also explains that the location of the road races venue, hosting marathon, cycling and race walk competitions, kept shifting due to police intervention and required authorisation from and coordination with Delhi municipality. With changes like this going on right up to the last minute, the designers had to be resourceful.
“All the overlay commodities had already been ordered and delivered to India – no room was left to make any changes. To be able to build the games in the time available was already unlikely. So some of our meetings with the overlay contractors turned into bartering exercises where we would have to ask ‘what do you have that you could exchange for this, what can we take off one venue and put on another venue?’ Eventually we managed to piece the puzzle together and deliver all venues just in time. It was then up to the ceremonies department to stage a spectacular show, which was the turning point for the Games and the beginning of an unforgettable two weeks of smooth running competitions and side events”
Setting the record straight
The organisers took a lot of flak from the press for being behind schedule, but Cotterell is keen to set the record straight. “You can’t just blame the organizing committee for what prevented the smooth preparation of the Games. The government agencies, municipal authorities and the Commonwealth Games Federation, all played a part contributing to the pitfalls. Within the organising committee, contrary to what the media were saying, there were teams of people working around the clock, keeping spirits high, and assembling this extraordinary debut for India.”
“There was not a clear hierarchical path to reach a decision. In India there are as many bureaucratic levels as there are gods and the only way to get a decision was to go and sit in the General Secretary’s office and get his personal commitment in order to push forwards. Without Lalit Bhanot’s signature, nothing happened.
“There was no particular formality other than having a friendly relationship with the office man who guarded Dr Bhanot’s door; essentially one could just knock on the door and if he wanted to see you he’d invite you to sit down with another five to ten people all trying to have a meeting with him at the same time. It was warm and interesting – you inevitably got involved in the decision making about the work of other departments.”
Accepting that you are working in a different world is essential for a positive experience. “You have to be culturally adaptable. Designsport’s philosophy is to train, mentor and work with a local team of architects. By so doing we build a very dynamic and culturally friendly work environment and also leave a legacy to the country in which we are invited to work.”
Are companies who are not getting involved in India missing opportunities? Cotterell thinks so. Designsport has now set up shop in India and is well positioned to contribute to the design and implementation of facilities and infrastructure for the growing sports industry.
For overseas companies that are prepared to work in India on its own terms, the rewards are great. “We can now say that Designsport survived the challenge – I believe that really shows character, professionalism and stamina – the sort of thing that all developing world countries would need when employing foreign companies to deliver their major projects.”
Having spent so much time in India preparing for the Games and having spent much time in India as an architecture student, Cotterell is well placed to comment on what the event means for the nation’s development. “It was a historical moment for India. It has changed Delhi forever. Delhi now has an international airport worthy of its name; a metro system that would be the envy of any major European city; a new road system linking major parts of the city and peripheral new towns; Connaught Place, the colonial show piece that is the centre of the city, has been revamped; beautiful hotels and restaurants have come up in beautiful gardens and other exotic parts of the city. – Delhi still has all the charm of its colonial past, now married with the character of its identity as capital city of one of the fastest growing economies in the world – truly a fascinating transition to witness.”
The hosts themselves have shown no surprise that their biggest sports event was a huge international success, because they always knew they would succeed. “The Indians are very playful people – even at the highest level there is a lot of playfulness. It is never devoid of colour or humour – and a belief in fate, that all will be OK.”
Cotterell points out that, paradoxically, the success of the event was not only a confirmation that India is capable of hosting a major international multi-sport event, but it also represents a challenge to the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF). After many trials and tribulations, the CGF is now faced with the fact that India has raised the bar in terms of the financial outlay and the standard of their product to a mini-Olympic Games. The CGF is now faced with having to redimension the expectations in order to stay relevant to most of the member countries which are very small.
Cotterell concludes by saying: “The previous Commonwealth Games were held in Melbourne, Australia. With its privileged status as a major sporting capital of the world, success was guaranteed. India started from a less privileged position in relation to infrastructure and sporting experience and yet succeeded in hosting a magical event. Glasgow has much to live up to!”