The long, winding drive through the lush, green, football fields on one side and the serene Mandovi River on the other from Thivim to Panaji hardly gives an impression of a city that will be hosting its biggest-ever sporting competition. Right through the 20-odd kilometer journey on NH-17, stray banners with the Lusofonia Games’ mascot printed on it hang from the lamp posts.
It doesn’t change much, even when you make your way into the city. With so much left to do regarding the basic infrastructure itself, the organisers, understandably, have hardly had any time to publicise the Games as they had intended.
Inside the sports secretariat, they are sorting out the invites to be sent out for tonight’s opening ceremony, ensuring no important person is overlooked. Funnily, the name of the sports minister Ramesh Tawadkar is missing from the list; an error immediately rectified. The minister has been overtly critical of the Games but has changed his tone in the last few days, sounding more optimistic and positive.
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It’s tough to sound positive, though. On Friday, more than 700 — 739, to be precise — athletes descended on the land of sun, sand and sea for the third edition of the Lusofonia Games that will begin on Saturday, with the opening ceremony scheduled at the refurbished Nehru Stadium in Fatorda.
After an embarrassing build-up that saw the Games being postponed from November last year, the organisers insist Goa is ready to host its biggest — and most expensive — party. On ground level, however, Goa seems more like a reluctant host rather than a city that is known for giving a warm reception to its guests. The multi-sport event is in line with the Commonwealth Games (meant for former British colonies) and the Francophile Games (former French territories).
The Lusofonia Games are more political in nature than the other two, used more as a tool to promote the Portuguese language. So strong is the emphasis on the language that Portugal’s chef de mission Arthur Lopes even refused to talk to English-language media. “These are Lusofony Games. No place for Ingliis here,” says Lopes, who also holds a high-ranking position with the Portuguese Olympic federation, in a heavy accent.\
Keshav Chandra, a 1995 batch IAS officer, who is the CEO of these Games, laughs when asked if he has taken Portuguese lessons. “I considered night tuitions but I have learnt on the job,” he says.
On the job, however, he has had his plate full. Goa won the bid to host the 2013 Games over Brazil and Sri Lanka in 2009 under the Congress-led government of Digambar Kamat. After three years of inaction, Manohar Parrikar’s BJP government decided to host the Games, giving organisers little more than a year.
“Technically, they have built everything in one year, which is very commendable. The venues are fantastic and the city looks great,” ACOLOP president Alex Wong of Macau said.
Goa will be represented by a strong contingent of 200 athletes. Macau (China) with 112 has the biggest contingent from the visiting countries with Brazil (7) sending the least. Nine sports are included in the programme this year — athletics, basketball, football, judo, taekwondo, volleyball, beach volleyball, wushu and table tennis.
In an attempt to attract the local population, most of them Konkanis who struggle to identify themselves with the concept of Lusophonia, the state government has kept the entry to all venues free. However, gauging the mood, it looks unlikely that they will be successful.
“It’s been tough for the locals and us; frustrating as well. But I have no doubts it will be a huge success now,” Chandra says, staring at the Games banner which reads ‘Bring it on’.
He smiles and says: “Let’s get done with this”. Perhaps, he is only half joking.