In a boost for India's beleaguered preparations for the Commonwealth Games, two top international sports officials said Friday that conditions at the squalid athletes' village had greatly improved, though they said cleanup work should continue urgently.
After holding its team back because of the problems, New Zealand decided Friday to attend the games. And the first foreign athletes — the English hockey and lawn bowling teams — arrived in New Delhi, though they planned to stay in hotels for a few days before moving to the village.
"Everybody is very excited, wants to get there, you know, get in with the action and get going really," Caroline Searle, spokeswoman for the English team, said as the athletes left the airport.
Some of the athletes later toured the village to assess the conditions there.
"The flats are spacious, which is good for a major games, but there are bits and pieces to be done to bring them up to standard," hockey player Ben Middleton said in a statement. "A couple of days will make a difference."
The games were intended to be a source of international pride for India, but corruption scandals, huge delays in getting facilities ready and the filthy conditions at the games village have turned the event into an embarrassment for the emerging Asian power.
At least nine athletes have withdrawn from the games in recent days because of concern for their health and safety, and the president of Australia's Olympic Committee said Friday that India should not have been awarded the games in the first place.
Amid the criticism this week about conditions in the village, India committed major resources to rectifying the problems before the games, which bring together about 7,000 athletes and officials from 71 countries and territories beginning Oct. 3.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held an emergency meeting Thursday night and demanded that officials make sure the games were successful.
"With only a few days left, the prime minister took personal initiative, saying that no stone should be left unturned to see that we successfully conduct the games," said Prithviraj Chavan, a minister in the prime minister's office.
Commonwealth Games Federation President Mike Fennell, who rushed to New Delhi to deal with the troubles, toured the village Friday and met with top athletic officials from participating countries. He will also meet with Indian Cabinet Secretary K.M. Chandrasekhar, the prime minister's top aide for the games.
Fennel's staff informed him that "considerable improvements have been made within the village," he said in a statement.
"It is vital that all remedial work that has already started continues with the greatest urgency," he said.
The head of Australia's Commonwealth Games Association, Perry Crosswhite, was upbeat as well.
"I am very pleased with the village as of now," he said in New Delhi.
There were still problems with water in the basement inside the village, but Delhi officials promised it would be fixed by Friday night, he said.
Crosswhite said "as of now" the Australian team would arrive in Delhi on Monday. "We are on for the games," he said.
Athletes from New Zealand will also attend but officials will review progress around their accommodation and security daily, the New Zealand Olympic Committee announced Friday. Its athletes are to begin arriving in the Indian capital on Tuesday.
"We remain hopeful that things can be turned around," committee President Mike Stanley said.
The optimism signaled a major change in mood from earlier this week when team officials expressed horror at the conditions at the village — including excrement in rooms and problems with plumbing, wiring and furnishings.
Organizers also have struggled with financial scandals, an outbreak of dengue fever, the collapse of a footbridge leading to the main stadium and security fears after the shooting last Sunday of two tourists outside one of New Delhi's top attractions. A Muslim militant group took responsibility for the shooting.
The cost of the games, pegged at less than $100 million in 2003, has skyrocketed, with estimates ranging from $3 billion to more than $10 billion.
New Zealand cyclist Greg Henderson, who has won four medals at previous games, pulled out Friday, the latest to do so.
Several teams deferred traveling to New Delhi, and a few sports officials even suggested the games could be postponed or canceled. But England's decision Thursday to send its more than 500 athletes to the games gave a huge boost to the event.
A statement said chef de mission Craig Hunter and his colleagues are seeing "improved levels of resourcing which are required to resolve the significant operational issues." It added, however, that they will continue to monitor the situation to ensure the village and other venues meet their standards.
Nevertheless, criticism continued, with Australian Olympic Committee President John Coates saying India should not have been given the games.
"The problem is the Commonwealth Games Federation is under resourced. It doesn't have the ability to monitor the progress of cities in the way the (International) Olympic Committee does," he said.