New Delhi: The Commonwealth Games finally got underway on Monday with eight gold medals at stake as the focus switched to sport after a nightmarish run-up damaged India’s reputation.
The country regained some credibility with a widely praised opening ceremony on Sunday evening, but it took another hit Monday with glaringly empty stadiums at the swimming, netball, tennis and hockey.
About two million tickets were made available for the multi-sport Games, but rumours have long circulated in the capital that the response has been lacklustre amid delays in finalising the sales network.
Five of the titles on offer will come in the pool where England’s double Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington headlines the women’s 200m freestyle, the first leg of what she hopes will be a four-gold medal haul.
Gold will also be won in the men’s 400m freestyle, the women’s 200m individual medley, the men’s 200m butterfly and the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay where Australia, South Africa and England should be in contention.
Glory is also on the line in weightlifting in the women’s 48kg category and the men’s 56kg, while the Commonwealth’s top men’s gymnasts will battle for team bragging rights.
The lead-up to the 11-day long Games has been dogged by worries over threats of terror attacks, corruption and construction delays, but India finally found something to cheer about with an epic opening ceremony.
The colourful three-hour extravaganza celebrated the country’s long history as well as its emergence as a powerful global player, and, importantly, it went off without any major glitches.
“Finally, Delhi Dazzles,” screamed the broadsheet Times of India on its front page, while the tabloid Mail Today simply said “Indiaaah!”
But not everyone was happy, with spectators complaining about long queues to get inside the main Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium and a lack of food and water available once there.
Some traders, meanwhile, were upset at Delhi being in lockdown on Sunday, with shops, restaurants and markets ordered to close as part of a huge security operation.
“This is unfair. we were waiting for this day for the past months, but it has come as a huge disappointment,” said one stall holder in Old Delhi.
Shops re-opened on Monday but the heavy security blanket remained amid fears militants might attack the quadrennial competition, which features 71 nations and territories formerly belonging to the British Empire.
At the Dr S.P. Mukherjee Aquatics Complex, Adlington comfortably cruised into Monday evening’s 200m freestyle final in 1:59.68, behind fastest qualifier Kylie Palmer of Australia.
The 800m freestyle world record holder admits to having struggled to maintain consistent form since the Beijing Olympics two years ago, but was happy with her first dip in the Commonwealth pool.
“I’m happy to have made the final. When I finished I looked up and saw that I finished third. If I didn’t I would have been embarrassed,” said Adlington, adding that it had been an early start for her.
“It’s nothing like I’ve ever done before. We had to get up before 4am to leave the village in time. It was all crazy.”
But defending Commonwealth champion Caitlin McClatchey of Scotland had a horror day and failed to qualify, ending 17th overall.
“I’m really disappointed. I wanted to go fast to make the finals and defend my title,” she said, in a complex lacking spectators.
The ghost-town atmosphere was the same elsewhere, with thousands of empty seats.
Some 4,300 athletes are competing here in 272 events across 17 sports.
Australia has topped the medals table in the last five Games and is expected to do so again.