Work lags on Pan American venue

GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- The centerpiece of the Pan American Games, an 8,500-seat stadium for track and field, has fallen victim to years of poor planning, political infighting and now an untimely rainy season, making the venue a muddy mess with less than two months to go until the event kicks off.

With 42 countries competing in 36 sports, the Pan American Games is the biggest multi-sport event Mexico has hosted since the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

Other venues appear to be on schedule for completion before the event opens Oct. 14, but the track and field stadium is lagging way behind and is still only accessible by dirt trails.

The $28 million project has faced countless delays, and construction only began late in 2010.

"There is an enormous amount of work still to do (on the stadium)," Hugo Rodriguez, director of infrastructure for the organizing committee, told The Associated Press. "We are pressuring (the construction company). It is such a big construction job that the 20 percent that remains amounts to a lot of things."

Environmental regulations, construction difficulties and politicking between the state and local governments have led to delays and canceled the original plans -- an impressive 15,000-capacity stadium overlooking the Huentitan Canyon, a natural beauty spot on the edge of the city.

Work continues on its modest replacement and, although the main stand is taking shape, seats still have to be installed and the running track has not been laid. Huge pools of rain water from the ongoing tropical rainy season can be seen around the edges of the construction site.

"Here it rains for only short periods but with a lot of intensity," Rodriguez said. "It has affected us."

The stadium is 80 percent complete, according to Rodriguez, who, despite the delays and an original completion date of May, remains confident the venue will be ready when the athletics competition starts on Oct. 23.

"They have a signed commitment to finish it," Rodriguez said of Fonatur, the federal government-run body charged with the construction of the stadium.

Construction work on the athletes village, once a cause for concern, is almost complete. The key facility will house the 6,835 athletes competing during the games.

The swimming and tennis venues, located in Parque Metropolitano on the wealthier western side of the city, are the "emblematic" venues for the games, according to Rodriguez.

The new sporting facilities should be a boost for Mexico's second city, which is best known as the home of tequila and mariachi music. It is also the home of famous athletes like Manchester United striker Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, and former No. 1-ranked female golfer Lorena Ochoa.

Federico Torres, public relations director for the games, says the new infrastructure increases opportunities for young people. However, games organizers have been criticized for failing to involve less well-off parts of the community: 11 of the 15 new, permanent venues are located on the wealthier side of an economically divided city.

With traffic jams a daily occurrence at peak hours in the 4.4-million population city, Torres says the organizing committee has met with transportation officials to set up 175 miles of special lanes for vehicles carrying athletes and officials.

Thirty-nine public schools will close during the 16-day games to ease traffic congestion. All private schools, whose pupils tend to arrive in cars, will do the same.

Organizers have tried to play down the chance of violence during the event.

According to official figures, at least 35,000 people have been killed in drug violence in Mexico since late 2006, when President Felipe Calderon launched his crackdown on organized crime. Other sources, including local media, say the number is closer to 40,000.

Guadalajara and the state of Jalisco have been less affected than many cities in the north of the country, but state government statistics show there were 700 murders in the first seven months of 2011 in Jalisco, which has a population of just over 7 million. Eighty-four percent of the murders were linked to organized crime, state government studies show.

If headline-grabbing violence does occur in the city -- as it did earlier this year -- and visitors stay away, it could greatly reduce the $2.7 billion economic gain the Pan American Games are expected to bring to Guadalajara.

On Saturday, a first-division match in northern Mexico was suspended after gunmen opened fire on police near the stadium, causing players, fans and referees to run for cover. Last year a baseball game in northern Mexico was suspended because of a similar incident.