LONDON – China and India are Asian neighbors, rivals and emerging powers. When it comes to organizing major international sporting events, though, there is no comparison.
While China announced itself as a global leader with the spectacular and grandiose Beijing Olympics in 2008, India has endured international embarrassment with the chaotic, last-minute preparations for the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.
India's predicament illustrates how high China set the bar and how major sports extravaganzas can make or break a country's image and reputation. It also serves as a cautionary tale for taking big events to countries that may not yet be ready to meet the huge organizational challenge.
"Both China and India cried (out) for international recognition and respect," said Xu Gouqi, a professor at the University of Hong Kong and author of "Olympic Dreams: China and Sports." ''Both tried to use sports events as coming-out parties. Both approached the sports events as political tools.
"But economically and socially India was at a disadvantage compared to Beijing's games."
The push to take the biggest sports events to new countries and territories — not just the usual powerful, developed nations — has been growing in recent years. It's no coincidence that China hosted the Summer Olympics, or that South Africa just hosted the World Cup in Africa for the first time, or that Brazil will welcome both events in 2014 and 2016.
"It's really important that countries which have not traditionally staged major sporting events should be encouraged to do so, and you have to recognize that there are going to be challenges if you want to truly globalize sport," said Sebastian Coe, the former middle-distance running great who heads the organizing committee for the 2012 London Olympics.
Indeed, some countries are better cut out for the task than others.
China used the Olympics as a global platform to introduce itself as a rising, modern power — and largely succeeded in dazzling the world.
Chinese leaders spared no expense, spending a staggering $40 billion — much of it on new infrastructure, subways and ultramodern venues such as the Bird's Nest and Water Cube — to create the largest, costliest games in Olympic history. Despite controversies over human rights and press freedom, the games were widely hailed as superbly organized.
The result was an immense boost of national pride for China's 1.3 billion citizens, as the country basked in a new image internationally. Transforming itself from poverty to relative prosperity within three decades, China was finally able to showcase its achievements before a televised audience of billions.
"The regime's political legitimacy seemed to be boosted substantially with the games and China as a nation won a substantial level of recognition, respect and even admiration from the rest of the world," Xu said. "In short, the world was shocked and awed by the Beijing Games."
At the heart of China's success was the reality that Beijing Games were a state-run national priority with unlimited financial resources and workers. At one point, the Chinese were so far ahead in building the venues that the IOC asked them to slow down.
Contrast that with the situation in populous, poor and democratic India, where preparations for the Commonwealth Games — an Olympic-style event featuring around 7,000 athletes from more than 70 countries and territories — went down to the wire ahead of Sunday's opening ceremony.
The games teetered on the verge of cancellation when officials complained the athletes' village was filthy and uninhabitable, a footbridge leading to the main stadium collapsed and part of the roof at the weightlifting venue fell in. Several high-profile athletes pulled out due to health and safety concerns.
A colorful opening ceremony on Sunday night featuring gigantic drums, classical singers and dancers and a Bollywood theme song lifted some of the gloom, but problems persisted Monday on the first day of competition. There were paltry crowds at most events, the weigh-in scales at boxing gave faulty readings and worries over dengue fever escalated after a 30-year-old Indian lawn bowls team official was admitted to a hospital over the weekend with the mosquito-borne disease.
The messy buildup and rocky start have underlined the risks of organizing such events in developing countries.
International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said that even with the push to make sports accessible to everyone on the planet, his first concern is finding suitable conditions for athletes.
"The main purpose and overriding purpose of the Olympic Games is to offer the athletes a good experience," Rogge told The Associated Press. "We go for quality first. If quality means you have to go to a more developed country, let it be so. Under no circumstances would I agree to go to a country at the expense of the welfare of the athletes."
India's organizational problems have been blamed on several factors, including corruption, mismanagement and shoddy construction. The chaos dealt a blow to the country's plans of bidding for the 2020 Olympics. Senior Canadian IOC member Dick Pound said India's Olympic hopes had been put back "by at least a decade," while Rogge urged patience.
"We had doomsday scenarios in Athens (for the 2004 Summer Games), and these were absolutely very good games," he said. "The Greeks were able to pull out a very good effort. They were very, very good games at the last moment, so this could happen in Delhi."
The contrast between Beijing and New Delhi can also be traced to the sharply different sporting cultures in the two countries. China has become a global sports power, topping the gold medal tally in Beijing with 51 and winning 100 total medals — the result of a highly organized state program to select and train athletes and target medals. India has won only 7 Olympic medals ever, including its first individual gold in Beijing in shooting.
Cricket is the national sport in India but does not feature in the Commonwealth Games or Olympics. Support for the home team and medal-winning performances by its athletes are considered crucial to an event's success. That was underlined by the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, where Canada led the gold medal count as Canadian fans brought a carnival atmosphere to the streets.
London Olympic organizers say they hope to replicate Vancouver's party mood in 2012, but are quick to stress they are not trying to outdo Beijing. Those games, Coe repeatedly points out, were held on a grander scale than any other.
"We will never see a games like Beijing again," Coe said earlier this year. "That's not typical of the way games are going to be delivered. ... The beauty of the Olympic movement is no games should try to copy the previous one."
With less than two years to go, British organizers are on schedule and on budget. Despite the troubled economy and government austerity measures, the capital is on track with its 9.3 billion pound ($14.7 billion) project that includes revitalizing a rundown area of east London into the showpiece Olympic Park.
In the end, Olympic officials say, choosing a host city must not be a gamble or risk because the stakes are simply too high.
"Athletes have only one or two chances to fulfill their dream," Rogge said. "You can't say to an athlete: 'Oh well, we organize the games here and there. We'll see you next time.' There is no next time for the athlete because his career will be over. That is the bottom line."
London-based AP Sports Writer Stephen Wilson has been covering the Olympic beat since 1991. Associated Press Writers Tini Tran in Beijing and Tales Azzoni in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.