India sweeps away games shame | The Australian
INDIA swept aside weeks of humiliating revelations over its chaotic Commonwealth Games preparations last night with a spectacular opening ceremony.
The ceremony was staged under an unprecedented city-wide security lockdown.
Delhi's 65,000-seat Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium was at near-capacity as Indians and visitors ignored the security threats and fears over venue safety to watch what Games organisers always promised they could deliver -- an cultural extravaganza showcasing the emerging nation's extraordinary diversity.
Australian netball captain Sharelle McMahon led the Australian team and more than 6000 athletes -- the largest contingent ever -- into the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium ahead of a riotous three-hour performance which drew in everything from yogic spirituality, giant Rajasthani puppets, ancient musical instruments and Bollywood exuberance.
Despite predictions of chaos and frustration at the intense security ring around the venue, thousands of middle-class Indians heeded the 18-point advisory issued by the Home Ministry, arriving hours ahead of time to walk the several kilometres from the drop-off zone to arrive at the outer security perimeter.
Among the early arrivals. Ishant Shankatawari, 16, told The Australian he had travelled 10 hours by car from his Himalayan boarding school in Mussoorie to witness the biggest sporting event India has ever hosted.
"I am filled with patriotic feeling and want to support my country," the excited teenager said, adding that he was disappointed at the corruption exposed in the lead-up to the event, but believed the next generation would learn from the current leaders' errors.
"We were not well prepared, but all these things are teaching us to become perfect," he said.
"It's just 60 years since India's independence but we are already the seventh largest economy and second largest population. We have survived so many forces against us -- Maoists, Pakistan and Punjabi separatists -- but we did not give up."
Forgiveness was in the air last night with even controversial Organising Committee chairman Suresh Kalmadi receiving charitable applause from the audience.
Just hours before the event, the usually teeming Indian capital was eerily quiet.
Shops, roads, markets and fly zones were all closed before the Delhi Games sell-out opener.
The country's security chiefs were leaving nothing to chance for the event, which analysts warned presented a prime target for would-be terrorists hoping to disrupt the game and embarrass India.
A 100,000-strong security force -- including 80,000 police and 17,000 paramilitary troops -- were last night stationed across Games venues, behind sandbags, in watchtowers and at intervals along all surrounding roads.
Fighter aircraft and helicopter gunships were also on standby.
Delhi police commissioner Y .S Dadwal said yesterday every police officer in Delhi was "on the job 24/7".
"Most are working and sleeping at the police station," he added.
Home Minister P. Chidambaram, who warned less than a fortnight ago that construction delays were hampering efforts to secure all venues, promised "fool-proof" security yesterday as he did a last minute tour of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.
Security has been one of the big concerns for participating athletes and officials following a series of major terror attacks on India in recent years, including the 2008 co-ordinated bombings of Delhi markets and the devastating attack on Mumbai in the same year.
More recently, the shooting of two Taiwanese tourists outside Old Delhi's Jama Masjid (mosque) last month further heightened security fears.
Two separate terror groups, the Indian Mujaheddin and the al-Qa-'ida-linked 313 Brigade, have issued direct threats against the Games and its athletes this year.
Australia's Sports Minister Mark Arbib said he was confident of security preparations for the event but added: "We're still urging Australians through our travel advisory to exercise a high degree of caution at the Games, especially in public places outside the Games security cordon."
Last night the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade updated its advisory, warning Australians that security around giant screens to be erected at markets across the city would be lower than at Games venues.
Senator Arbib said he had also met with his ministerial counterpart M .S Gill who had assured him "all steps were being taken about the safety of venues in terms of the certification process and workmanship".
The structural integrity of Games venues has been under a cloud since the country's main corruption watchdog, the Central Vigilance Committee, found faulty materials had been used in some venues and safety certificates faked.
The collapse a fortnight ago of a pedestrian foot bridge connecting the main stadium to a car park and several ceiling cave-ins at venues further raised alarm bells.
The terrorist threat, along with fears of a current Dengue Fever epidemic and last-minute chaos at the Athletes' Village, prompted a number of high profile athletes -- including Australian gold medal discus hope Dani Samuels -- to pull out of the Games.
Just hours before the event Indian Home Secretary G. K Pillai met with US Central Intelligence Agency chief Leon Panetta in the Indian capital to discuss new instability in the region and security for the Commonwealth Games.
Mr Panetta is understood to have flown to Islamabad for emergency talks with political and security chiefs in the wake of intelligence reports suggesting a new al-Qa'ida plot hatched in Pakistan to carry out attacks in Britain, France and Germany.
The US State Department last night upgraded its travel advisory for Europe.
The latest intelligence underscores the dangers to India, a giant democracy which sits in one of the world's most unstable regions.
Delhi has virtually closed down for the 11-day event; schools, colleges and most offices have been given holidays in the hope of alleviating traffic gridlock and frustration.
A long and eclectic list of prohibited items has also been issued for the opening ceremony including laptops, umbrellas, chewing tobacco, animals, food, flags, darts and musical instruments, presumably including the ubiquitous World Cup vuvuzelas that have made an appearance in the Indian capital in recent day