Commonwealth Games: Where are all the spectators?

Observers are pinning low turnout so far at the Commonwealth Games on low interest in sports and the host of problems that plagued the preparations.

Lee Jin-man/AP Photo
An Indian Army soldier stands guard during the Commonwealth Games at the R.K. Khanna Tennis Complex in New Delhi, India, Monday, Oct. 4.

Buoyed by Sunday's jubilant opening ceremonies, Indians came out to watch the opening matches of the Commonwealth Games – just not in big numbers, yet.

Early telecasts of badminton, netball, and swimming showed empty seats around the courts and pool. At the gymnastics stadium, mere hundreds of spectators took seats in the 14,000-capacity venue. Only a few hundred more were on hand to watch one of India’s early gold hopefuls in female weightlifting.

India bid to host the quadrennial international games both to showcase its rising power status and to inspire more participation and interest in sports among the country’s youth. The low turnout, so far, may speak to the host of problems that plagued the preparations and the relatively low interest in sports in India – with the crucial exception of cricket.

IN PICTURES: Commonwealth Games 2010

“Indians are more into cricket and they don’t, I think, understand these other games’ importance,” says Aabid Hussain, who attended the women’s weightlifting event with his son Awais. “They should be involved in more and more games, not just cricket. Cricket is not everything.”

Attendance could pick up

It's not that India isn't good at other sports: The country has so far taken two medals – a silver and a bronze, both in female weightlifting – out of the first 21 awarded. Traditional powerhouse Australia leads with six medals.

“India got two medals, I am proud for India,” says Mr. Hussain.

But there's reason to believe things could pick up. Some later semifinals and finals competitions are selling out, particularly those involving popular Indian athletes or rival Pakistan, according to Manav Jaitly, a ticket manager.

Also, the TV broadcasts can be deceptive: The most expensive seats are near the field of play, and even those with good incomes often go for the cheaper seats up in the rafters.

Affordable family outing

The priciest tickets top out at $22. Most venues have cheap seats for $2 to $6. Tickets for lawn bowls, or bocce, go for a dollar, and some of the shooting events are free.

And with schools on recess in Delhi for the games, the event became an affordable family outing for some.

Anoop Garg came with his family and his brother’s family to watch gymnastics – something they have only seen on TV before.

“We have opportunities to see cricket and other sports, but not gymnastics,” says Mr. Garg, an accountant. “It’s also good for the children to see how they can make their bodies flexible.”

“And it increases stamina,” pipes in his 9-year-old niece, Vidushi Garg. Asked if she wants to be a gymnast, she says no. Why not? “I don’t like sports.”

Garg and his nine-member family skipped the opening ceremonies because the affordable tickets sold out early and the only available tickets, starting at $110, were too pricey. But, those who watched it – either on TV or in person – expressed happiness with the spectacle.

Uncertainty amid problems

The Indian media trumpeted the ceremony on the morning’s front pages, apparently relieved to have positive news to report about a games that were heading for disaster amid missed deadlines, shoddy construction, and allegations of corruption.

“A Great Indian Start to Games,” read the Indian Express. “A Spectacular Start,” crowed the Hindustan Times.

In both India and Pakistan, news about the ceremony highlighted how the Indian crowd cheered the Pakistani team louder than any other visiting athletes.

The uncertainty about whether the games would pull together may also have played a roll in the empty seats on the first day of competition.

“The people were not sure if the games would be held or not,” saws A. Maheshwari, an accountant who came to watch gymnastics with his son Anuj. In the end, “the stadiums were ready, but people were confused.”

IN PICTURES: Commonwealth Games 2010

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