Delhi welcomes athletes to fortified capital

By Sudipto Ganguly and Amlan Chakraborty

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - As the countdown to the Commonwealth Games moved into its final three days, athletes continued to flood into a heavily guarded Indian capital as the host of problems surrounding the event showed signs of easing.

More than 4,000 athletes have arrived in Delhi to find a city wrapped in a security blanket and a Games needing a last-minute government intervention to rescue the multi-sports gathering and prevent a huge embarrassment for India.

A visit to the venue by International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge on Friday will provide a much-needed boost for organizers reeling from the logistical nightmare of trying to arrange India's answer to the Beijing Olympics.

Shoddy construction and filthy toilets at the Games Village delayed the arrivals of several teams but the last-ditch efforts to improve the situation appears to be paying off.

"I reached here only last night but accommodation is as was expected and I'm looking forward to enjoying the next couple of weeks here," Australia's world champion pole vaulter Steve Hooker told reporters at the Games Village on Thursday.

South African chef-de-mission Patience Shikwambana also said the focus was now on winning medals.

"What is important for us is the country's position in the medals tally. Last time we were fifth. If our teams perform to their best, this time we are hoping to go one or two positions higher."

The October 3-14 Games, however, was again hit by pullouts as Australians Scott Martin (discus) and Hayley Butler (sprint hurdler) withdrew with injuries.

"Scott had an injury to his pectoral muscle while Hayley suffered a calf muscle injury," a spokesperson of the Australian contingent told Reuters.

To ensure the safety of the athletes, the Indian capital has been converted into a fortress with 100,000 security personnel, including commandos, snipers and police, virtually taking over the city.

MiG fighters and armed helicopters would be on standby for the Games and Mi-35 attack helicopters would be airborne during opening and closing ceremonies, according to media reports.

Mobile surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft guns have also been deployed.

The $6 billion exercise was intended to display India's growing economic and political clout, rivalling neighbor China, which put on a spectacular 2008 Beijing Olympics.

But an attack on tourists by suspected militants, a dengue fever epidemic, filthy apartments in the athletes' village, and the collapse of a footbridge injuring 27 workers has forced India on the defensive.

Organizers also had to deal with a number of high-profile withdrawals including triple Olympic gold medallist Usain Bolt of Jamaica and Australian swimmer Stephanie Rice.

Much to the organizers' embarrassment, a snake was found in an athlete's room while and an Indian boxer's bed collapsed in the Games Village.

Outside the complex, homeless people who sleep on pavements have disappeared and beggars have been banished from the main streets of New Delhi.

The government has also promised to investigate reports of corruption in the awarding of lucrative contracts for the Games.

(Editing by John O'Brien and Pritha Sarkar)