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Commonwealth baton vies with festivals for Delhi's attention

Top, athlete Sudha Singh with the baton at the Taj Mahal. Above, the baton leaves Glasgow AirportPhotographs: Reuters; Jamie Simpson
Top, athlete Sudha Singh with the baton at the Taj Mahal. Above, the baton leaves Glasgow AirportPhotographs: Reuters; Jamie Simpson

The Commonwealth Games baton arrived in India on Friday evening for a low-key start to its journey around the world. It was no surprise to those in the city that the baton's arrival has not quite managed to wrest attention away from the major national festivals taking place at the same time.

India is a nation of festivals. When organisers in the country realised the baton was due to arrive on the same weekend as the Durga Pooja and Dushera festivals were due to start, they suggested the date was not suitable. The Diwali festival (the Festival of Lights) also takes place between mid-October and mid-November)

"We don't have enough security to provide for these events,'' said Vijay Kumar Malhotra, acting president of the Indian Olympic Association, which was planning a number of events around the baton's arrival.

"We spoke to the police commissioner and the government but none were able to help us. Therefore we can't allow the typical 400m relay that takes place, because we need to deploy people for security but that's not available to us."

Durga Pooja, which started yesterday, and Dushera, which begins today, have made it difficult for the relay to take centre stage.

One of the few times this city went out of its way to celebrate a non-religious commotion was when the Commonwealth Games was staged here in 2010. Despite the negative reports that preceded those Games, athletes, fans and the media ended up experiencing what was broadly seen as a successful event.

They finally put India on the map of sporting nations and the country now even aspires to host the Olympics at some stage.

Indian security agencies remain mindful that religious festivals, in particular, are a time they grapple with terrorist threats. In October 2005, three bombs placed in busy New Delhi markets a day before the Diwali festival began killed 62 people and injured hundreds more. Many other such attacks have taken place at this time of year.

"There's always an extra threat of terrorism during festivals," said Malhotra.

The Queen's Baton Relay began its 190,000km journey following its grand launch by the Queen, as the head of the Commonwealth, at Buckingham Palace in London on last Wednesday

Malhotra received the baton at New Delhi airport from Commonwealth Games Federation honorary secretary Louise Martin on Friday evening, before it was handed to the Indian representatives at a reception that night.

He was accompanied by a group of 12 Indian athletes, including Commonwealth Games gold medallists Krishna Poonia (discus), Gagan Narang and Samresh Jung (shooting), Deepika Kumari (archery) and K Ravi Kumar (weightlifting).

Yesterday morning, the baton was taken to the Taj Mahal, the site of the Indian Army's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, before heading to Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium, the venue for the first ever Asian Games in 1951 and host of the 2010 men's hockey World Cup.

But even as the baton and the athletes made their way from one part of the capital to another, I would not describe the scenes as a media frenzy. A photo session at India Gate, one of Delhi's busiest places, didn't draw the excitement one may have expected.

Later in the evening, the British Embassy hosted the athletes and the baton at its residence. This morning, there will be another photo session at Qutab Minar, a Unesco World Heritage site.

Samresh Jung, who won two gold medals for shooting at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, acknowledged that the big Indian festivals had neutered some of the excitement of the Games baton relay.

He told me: "It was a great moment to visit India Gate with the baton. It's always a privilege. I also had the honour of bearing the Queen's baton in its opening ceremony run in the stadium for the 2010 Games. This time around it was a very different feeling because very few were there. And that is mainly because of Diwali.

"The Commonwealth Games has now turned into a world-class event and I look forward to going to Glasgow next year."

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