A worker carries construction material past an under-construction Metro station near the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Friday
A worker carries construction material past an under-construction Metro station near the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Friday

New Delhi welcomed the first athletes to its crisis-hit Commonwealth Games on Friday as organisers raced against time to rescue the event amid claims the city should never have been chosen.

The Commonwealth Games Federation signalled that conditions were finally improving, but that there was still work to do after the athletes' village was described as "uninhabitable" earlier in the week.

The showpiece multi-sport event, set to begin in nine days, had teetered on the brink of collapse on Tuesday when some nations threatened to pull out amid worries about security, a bridge falling down and the state of the facilities.

"It is vital that all remedial work that has already started continues with the greatest urgency," Commonwealth Games Federation president Mike Fennell said in a statement before inspecting the village.

"We must ensure that a suitable environment is provided to ensure the welfare of the athletes and their support staff."

The Games won a much-needed boost from England and New Zealand, which said they would send their athletes after an earlier warning from England that the competition was on a "knife-edge" as worries grew about Delhi's readiness.

High-profile athletes continued to pull out, however, including Welsh cyclist Geraint Thomas, an Olympic gold medal winner.

The first contingent of English athletes arrived at the airport in red and white tracksuits, but they moved into a hotel rather than the village, where thousands of cleaners have been pressed into urgent action.

"There are still issues with the residences, electrical issues, plumbing issues..." said Team England's spokeswoman Caroline Searle after a tour of the rooms allocated to the 560 English athletes and support staff.

"I can't say when it might be ready for us to move in. We're taking it day by day, hour by hour," Searle told AFP.

Australia's Olympic chief John Coates said that the Indian capital should never have been awarded the Games in the first place, adding that the Commonwealth Games Federation was also to blame for the shambolic organisation.

"The Games shouldn't have been awarded to New Delhi, in hindsight," Coates told reporters in Sydney.

"I think the problem is the Commonwealth Games Federation is under-resourced. It doesn't have the ability... to monitor the progress of cities in the way that the Olympic committee does," Coates said.

Canada postponed its athletes' arrival over cleanliness and safety concerns. It delayed the Friday evening departure of its women's field hockey team and administrative staff until conditions were "acceptable", but welcomed the Indian government's intervention.

"What you are seeing is now, for the first time, the injection or projection of significant political leadership in the organisation of the Games," said the president of Commonwealth Games Canada, Andrew Pipe.

Hundreds of staff were deployed from late Thursday, overseen by Delhi's Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, to clean the athletes' villages.

"We are now working on a war footing," said Ashok Kapoor, the chief administrator in the village which comprises 34 six-storey towers.

"More than 2,000 people are on the job, everywhere, round the clock, cleaning and re-fitting fixtures that do not work or are missing," Kapoor told AFP.

Several world-class athletes have already pulled out, including Australian world discus champion Dani Samuels, English Olympic 400m gold medallist Christine Ohuruogu and world triple jump champion Phillips Idowu.

And three British cyclists joined Thomas in deciding to stay at home.

"It's a massive disappointment first and foremost, but with the hygiene and the risk of getting ill, it was a massive risk," Thomas said.

The ratings agency Moody's warned Friday that the negative publicity was likely to deter investors from launching into India.

New Delhi had been expecting 7,000 athletes and officials for the showpiece for Commonwealth countries, mostly nations and territories formerly in the British empire.

The organiser of the opening ceremony - set to include more than 6,000 performers -- said Friday preparations for the October 3 show were well in hand.

"Preparations are going on fine, production wise we are on track, all the sound, light, dance recitals are all being rehearsed and technically everything is in control", opening ceremony chief Viraf Sarkari told AFP.

The West Australian

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