Tycoons join India's Olympic gold
quest By Raja Murthy
DEHRADUN, NORTHERN INDIA - James Bond will be opening the
US$17 billion London Olympics on July 27, as a
British paper revealed. A short film to start the
opening ceremony will show Queen Elizabeth
ordering Bond star Daniel Craig to do the needful.
If a particular Asia Times Online correspondent
had a hand in the script, it would include the
Before your usual opening stunts, Bond, fix the
mess in the Indian Olympic Association ... India
having been a jewel in papa's crown and that sort
Bond: But you have to
send for this fellow Tom Cruise, your Majesty Liz,
he's into the Mission Impossible stuff.
Even the doughty Hercules would have found
cleaning the Augean
stables easier than
sorting out India's politician-led Olympic
sporting federations, but mission impossible or
not, India's corporate leaders have entered where
Agents 007 or Cruise character Ethan Hunt might
No other national Olympic
federation has had its chief preparing for the
London summer games from jail - until recently the
home of Indian Olympic Association (IOA) president
and Congress party parliamentarian Suresh Kalmadi.
Kalmadi is out on bail from New Delhi's
Tihar Jail, nine months after being arrested for
his alleged role in the multi-billion dollar
Commonwealth Games scam (see India's
Games of shame, Asia Times Online, October 2,
2010). Incredibly, Kalmadi continues as IOA
president. He has even declared plans to head for
the London Olympics.
inefficiency of India's sports administrators has
contributed to Asia's third-largest economy
nursing its curious Olympics gold medal famine.
India had won gold a world record eight times in
field hockey, out of its overall 20 medals in
Olympics history. It's a world away from the
success of the United States, with 927 gold
medals, or China (163). Even poor Ethiopia has a
richer Olympic gold haul (11) than India with its
US$1.7 trillion economy.
given its increasing global profile, has decided
enough is enough. Leading Indian corporates such
as the Tata Group, Reliance Industries and Arcelor
Mittal are stepping up to the mark and putting
their own funds into helping Indian athletes
return home with an Olympic gold medal.
Four years ago, Abhinav Bindra showed what
is possible - winning gold in the 10-meter air
rifle at Beijing. It was India's first individual
Olympic gold medal and it took 108 years in
Any recent turnaround on India's
Olympic fortunes may date from November 2005, when
London-based steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal launched
the Mittal Champions Trust, backed by an initial
US$10 million annually. Mittal, chief executive of
the world's largest integrated steel and mining
company, Arcelor Mittal, said he started the
project after having no Indian sports person to
cheer on during the Athens Olympics in 2004.
The MCT supports five Olympic sports -
archery, athletics, boxing, shooting and
wrestling. Athletes receive international exposure
and training that their sports federations have
failed to give. South Korean coach Lee Wang Woo,
for instance, trains the archers.
group, India's largest conglomerate with $83.3
billion revenue in 2010-11, has long been a big
sports supporter. Tata pioneer Dorabjee Tata
(1859- 1932) established India's first Olympics
oriented sports body in 1919. Since then, the Tata
family has nurtured talent through the
Mumbai-based Tata Sports Club (founded 1937), the
Jamshedpur-based Tata Football Academy, the Tata
Archery Academy and the Tata Adventure Foundation.
"Champions aren't going to show up in a
hurry on the Indian sports horizon," says the Tata
website, "but it helps to have a group such as the
Tatas backing the quest to find them".
backing of industrialists has helped India to send
its largest Olympics contingent to date to the
The local and international
media contrast India's medals famine with the
number of people in the country - 1.2 billion, yet
it is likely that few of that vast population have
even heard of the Olympics, given that over 65% of
Indians live in villages, often without basic
necessities such as electricity. Much of their
athletic endeavors are probably limited to chasing
stray cattle or running from a short-tempered
bull. Yet even a 5% sports-following population
would deliver 50 million people.
three medals among the overall 202 gold, silver
and bronze gongs that Asian countries bagged in
Beijing - the country's best results to date. Host
China won 100 medals. Even Thailand and Mongolia
finished higher than India on the overall tally,
with four each.
Does India, with its
numerous urgent problems, need an Olympic gold
quest? It's an existential question in the
category of does the London Olympics need a $42
million opening ceremony? Or, whether the world
needs a highly commercialized Olympics driven by
the stadium construction industry?
2012, like its predecessors in Beijing and Athens,
will be a different universe from the games first
staged in the plains of Olympia, circa 776 BC.
Nearly 2,800 years ago, Olympic winners were not
handed gold medallions, but a palm branch and a
red ribbon tied around the head. A few centuries
later, laurel wreaths were given to ancient
Olympics stars like Astylos of Croton, Leonidas of
Rhodes, Melankomas of Caria and Kyniska, the
daughter of King Archidamos of Sparta.
Kyniska was the first known woman winner
in Olympics, and probably the world's first woman
race driving champion, winning the four-horse
chariot race in the 96th and 97th Olympics in 396
BC and 392 BC. In 2012, if princess Kyniska was
riding her chariot in the London Olympics, she
might have to first take a dope test.
21st century hunger for Olympian gold rides on
corporate investment growing proportionally with a
multi-billion dollar sports industry. In India,
even a decade ago, some degree of sporting
excellence was a route to a salaried job in
nationalized banks, private and public sector
Not any more. The $4.3 billion
Indian Premier League (IPL) has turned India's
sports business on its head. This hugely popular
annual cricket tournament, involving top
international and Indian players, has in four
years become the world's fastest growing and
Asia's richest sports league.
starting in 2008, the top five of the nine IPL
teams - like the Chennai Super Kings, Mumbai
Indians and Kolkata Knight Riders - are valued at
an average of over $350 million, nearly thrice the
cost team owners like Reliance Industries chairman
Mukesh Ambani and Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan
paid for franchisee rights.
After IPL and
greater corporate patronage, expectations have
skyrocketed in India for a sports career even
among non-urban youth. India's charismatic World
Cup winning cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni
is the biggest such sports-to-success story.
Dhoni grew up in the backwater town of
Ranchi in eastern India. From 2001, the then
20-year old worked as a ticket collector for the
Indian Railways in the town of Kharagpur in West
Bengal, earning a monthly salary of about 5,000
rupees (US$100). Dhoni got the post through a
sports quota. In December 2005, he was selected to
play for the Indian cricket team. Six years later,
he has an annual income of $27 million. According
to Forbes, Dhoni earns more than Manchester United
soccer star Wayne Rooney, Olympics 100-meters
champion sprinter Usain Bolt and tennis star Novak
Some of India's best hopes for
gold in London emerge from similar humble
backgrounds - 18-year-old world number one archer
Deepika Kumari is daughter of an auto-rickshaw
driver in Ranchi. She made her own bows and arrows
out of bamboo, and aimed at mangoes for target
Last week, Tata Group recruited
Kumari as a manager in the sports department of
Tata Steel, the world's 10th largest steel
producer. Whether they win gold in London or not,
the likes of Kumari are already a big inspiration
for young people in their region, an example of
what very hard work and self-belief can do.
Corporate promoters like the Tatas, and
others like the non-profit "Olympic Gold Quest"
trust, can best hope the national sports
federations don't throw a discus into their good
work. More so, as the prominent trait that India's
politician-sports chieftains like Kalmadi share
with Britain's Queen Elizabeth is a hearty
contempt of the prospect of retiring.
India has the worst per capita Olympics
medals tally in the world, yet Kalmadi has been
president of the Indian Olympic Association for 15
years, and president of the Athletics Federation
of India for 22 years. Fellow politician Vijay
Kumar Malhotra has been president of the Archery
Association of India for 32 years.
Compared with China spending about $500
million a year on sports, India allotted $186.3
million in the 2012-13 federal budget. Where even
this money goes is the accounting version of the
Bermuda Triangle, unresolved while athletes
frantically hunt for sponsors for basic equipment,
air tickets to international sporting events and
even a nutritious diet.
Bindra won the
shooting gold with little help from his sports
federation. In his recently released autobiography
A Shot at History, he reveals that while
being fitted for the Beijing Olympics, he had been
issued a size-11 left shoe and a size-8 right
In such a theatre of the absurd,
India's Olympic sports administrators are in a
master class of their own. It won't surprise
anyone in India if the news tomorrow says that
some geography-challenged official has by mistake
sent a contingent of Olympic athletes to East
London, in the Eastern Cape of South Africa,
instead of London, England.
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