Sweetheart deals

Over the past week, as ef­f­o­r­ts have been made to get the Co­mmonwealth Games Village and other facilities in some sort of shape, questions have been as­­­ked about the Commonwealth Ga­­mes Federation (CGF). Was the CGF right in only blaming the Commonwealth Games or­g­a­­­­nising committee (OC) and the In­dian and Delhi governments? Did it not fail its responsibilities?
It is expected more and more dirt on the CGF is going to be released (“leaked”) to the media. There is some disquiet at the role played by Mike Fennell, the CGF president and a Jamaica-based business executive. There is the perception that the CGF was pushing corporate and vendor interests.
The statements made by Mike Hooper, the chief executive of the CGF, have also aroused controversy. In recent months, Mr Hooper has been over-available to Indian journalists when he has wanted to use them to attack others. At other times, especially when he has been asked hard questions, he has pushed aside the microphones. Also the tone and nuance he has used in his interviews with international media outlets and with Indian ones has varied.
How justified is this sentiment and does this explain the mess that was made of the Commonwealth Games preparations? The answered is a qualified “no”; but the question has to be seen in a particular context.
At the outset it must be said that Mr Fennell would have had little or no say if India had gone about organising the Games in the right manner and had woken up to its to-do list in 2004 or 2005, rather than in 2008. Since that did not happen, the CGF saw its chance. Mr Fennell had established a cosy relationship with Suresh Kalmadi, president of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and chief of the OC. He saw this as mutually fruitful.
Indeed, Indian government officials say when senior ministers urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to curtail Mr Kalmadi’s powers and give oversight of the Games project to a wider, cross-cutting body that would straddle governmental, civic and sports-event responsibilities, it was Mr Fennell who somehow persuaded Dr Singh that this would be unfair. He is believed to have argued that the autonomy of the OC needed to be preserved.
This was nonsense. The Indian taxpayer was underwriting the Games. Mr Kalmadi was not being impaired in his role as IOA chief — and there can be a case, however unconvincing in the Indian context, of giving sports bodies freedom from government bureaucracies — but in his capacity as head of the OC. The OC was an ad hoc project management and delivery vehicle, no more.
Nevertheless the prime minister was convinced. One consequence was that Mr Hooper was posted in New Delhi for three years to oversee the OC’s work. This was deemed necessary because India was so far behind on its commitments. It was actually unprecedented because no CGF official had previously been sent to a host country for an extended period. It could be argued, though, that India invited this ignominy upon itself.
In New Delhi, Mr Hooper lived a luxurious expat lifestyle, paid for by the OC and, in effect, the Indian taxpayer. He now claims he actually pushed the Indian authorities and things would have been worse if he had not come. Perhaps; but is that the entirety of what he did?
By the time Mr Hooper arrived, it was clear the OC was thoroughly incompetent and was not in a position to ensure a smooth Games. It needed hand-holding, being incapable even of identifying quality vendors and adequate human talent within the country.
Among the first to begin lobbying for Commonwealth Games contracts were Australian sports management and logistics companies. They had the right credentials. Till the early 1990s, the Olympic Games — and other such events — were largely put together by national governments. The odd one out was the Atlanta Games, which saw corporate money so vitiating the Olympic spirit that it was nicknamed the “Coca-Cola Games”.
The Sydney Games of 2000 marked a paradigm shift. Specialist agencies were spun off to host a successful and remunerative Games that was true to the Olympic charter. Running the show were astute business managers who also empathised with sport. After Sydney 2000, management of gigantic, multi-sport events became a recognised Australian skill.
Like a good export-oriented economy, Australia used its comparative advantage profitably. Australian (and New Zealand) fingerprints have been seen at several big sports events in the past decade. When it came to India, the Australians were initially hopeful of only supportive contracts. They realised India had the in-house capacities that would, in many cases, make Australian vendors and agencies redundant. It was one thing for, say, a Qatar to outsource the Asian Games; India was a big bigger economy and society.
However, as India continued to slip up, the Australian and international vendors smelt another opportunity. The fact that Mr Hooper was a New Zealander, and had seen the Sydney Olympics and the Melbourne Commonwealth Games (2006) at close quarters, perhaps enhanced their comfort factor.
At this stage, the OC began signing strange contracts. India is home to three of the world’s finest hotel chains and dozens of other highly-rated catering firms. However, for the Games Village catering, two successive tenders were released and tailored in such a manner that only a single Australian company could win. When it got the contract, it promptly called in an Indian hotel company as partner.
The OC had argued that no Indian caterer had the resources to handle food requirements of so many nations. This was astonishing. If African athletes, for instance, required a nutritive diet conforming to a certain type of cuisine, then surely one of the big Indian hotel chains could have acquired that expertise in seven years?
All this has led to allegations of kickbacks and, unfortunately, the leading lights of the CGF may themselves have a lot to answer for. However, while no­body can condone corruption, it is worth noting that the Hooper-Fennell consortium was only gi­ven room because the OC and the Indian government were as­l­eep at the wheel. To the external world what matters is a first-cl­ass Commonwealth Games, not sweetheart deals. The CGF may have contributed to the latter, but India managed to make a tragedy of the former quite on its own.

Ashok Malik can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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