India seeks positive spin with games kickoff

Friday, 1 October 2010 23:46 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

NEW DELHI—India hopes to turn the tide of negativity over its hosting of the Commonwealth Games with an opening ceremony Sunday that will feature a performance by an Oscar-winning composer as well as a giant helium-filled balloon decked with mirrors, video screens and folk puppets.

WSJ’s Paul Beckett and Amol Sharma get into the spirit of the Commonwealth Games, which begin Sunday in New Delhi, by taking to the court and chatting between games on what to expect.

.But there won’t be as many tourists in town to see the spectacle as anticipated. The Games, which bring together 71 nations and territories in the British Commonwealth, were meant to attract a legion of tourists to New Delhi. But local officials say the spate of bad news in recent weeks about India’s lack of preparation for the event—from missed construction deadlines to the spread of dengue fever in the city—scared away many travelers, leaving a significantly smaller contingent of visitors than expected.

Still, if the opening ceremony comes off well on television—it will be broadcast to dozens of Commonwealth countries—it could go a long way toward repairing India’s tarnished image, assuming the actual sporting events also go smoothly in coming days.

The Games’ opening show Sunday evening will be at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, a track-and-field venue with a capacity of about 60,000 people. The centerpiece will be the 40-meter-wide-by-12-meter-high “aerostat,” a balloon on which high-resolution video screens will display images meant to complement performances.

“It’s not just a balloon in the way everyone’s making it out to be,” Viraf Sarkari, director of the opening ceremonies, said of the $8 million installation. “It is a technological masterpiece.”

Sarkari said the show will feature folk dances and music from various parts of India. A highlight will be a grand finale by A.R. Rahman, who won two Oscars for his music in the film “Slumdog Millionaire.” He will perform the theme song he composed for the Games. Prince Charles of Wales will read a short message from Queen Elizabeth to officially kick off the event.

An Indian police officer outside the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, the main venue of the Commonwealth Games, in New Delhi, on Friday, Oct. 1, 2010.

.India’s Games Organizing Committee says it expects its opening ceremony broadcast to be available to two billion to three billion people around the world. But sports marketers say the actual viewing audience won’t be huge in India and will be much smaller globally than bigger events like the Olympics and FIFA World Cup. Julian Jackson, vice president of media for sports marketing firm Total Sports Asia, said audiences will be sizable in major Commonwealth nations including Canada, the U.K., New Zealand and Australia but, “the smaller nations, especially in Asia, don’t get too excited about it.”

India has spent nearly a decade trying to build up its image overseas with a marketing campaign called “Incredible !ndia.” Billboards under that branding in cities such as New York included images that touted India’s varied landscapes and culture: a woman doing yoga, shadows moving across the Himalayas, and the Taj Mahal in Agra. Posters in Los Angeles last year played off Hollywood movies, including one with pictures of boats roaming the waters of the Ganges that was labeled “Mystic River.”

The lackluster run-up to the Games has set back some of the progress that branding campaign made. Images of filthy toilets and stories of king cobra snakes on the loose were beamed around the world.

V. Sunil, an advertising executive who created the marketing campaign in 2002, said the last few weeks have been heartbreaking. “We have been going around the world trying to portray the country in a good light—away from the idea that it’s a land of snake charmers,” he said. “Now to see all the negative things said about Delhi and India is depressing.” Sunil, who is now at global advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy, said he is developing a new pro-Commonwealth Games campaign called “We Positive” that will include online videos and posters featuring the Games tiger mascot, Shera.

New Delhi was hoping to attract about 100,000 foreign tourists during the next two weeks, about two-thirds of the usual influx for all of October. But Manoj Kumar, a spokesman for the city agency that operates tours for foreign travelers, said fewer visitors are showing up than expected because of “adverse publicity” surrounding the Games.