India long way off achieving medal success

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 11:15pm


The Indian community in London was agog at the appearance of Bollywood hero Abhishek Bachchan at Omega House, in the heart of Soho, the other night. The son of the legendary Amitabh Bachchan, the tall and charismatic Abhishek cut a dashing figure in a black Nehru jacket as he walked in, surrounded by a multitude of flunkeys.

I was among the large crowd at the themed party organised by the Olympic timekeepers and looking forward to catching a glimpse of the Bollywood star - not Abhishek, but his gorgeous wife Aishwarya Rai, a former Miss World, who is now also a major act in the Hindi movie industry. Sadly, Aishwarya had not accompanied her husband to London. So I had to settle for Abhishek, who made a beeline to another Indian gentleman who I think was Lakshmi Mittal, the steel magnate who is Britain's richest man.

Money can buy many things, but not medal success, in the case of India. While Britain is a good example of how money well spent can translate into gold medals, India has never made its presence felt on the world stage, at the Olympics or even the Asian Games.

After witnessing India's poor performance in Athens in 2004, Mittal, named after the Hindu goddess of wealth, bankrolled the Olympic team, which has cost him GBP8 million (HK$97 million) so far. He hasn't got the payback he had quite expected, with India's tally at three medals - a silver and two bronze - a poor return from the second-most populated country in the world.

'I am very disappointed,' Mittal told a British newspaper trying to find out why the tycoon had also pumped in money for the twisted lump of steel that stands next to the Olympic Stadium - the ArcelorMittal Orbit. His words were echoed by Abhishek, who was swamped by a large contingent of Indian media.

On the subject of India's modest performance, Abhishek said he felt sports should remain an integral part of the school curriculum. 'It's important for character building and for feeling a part of a nation,' he said. 'I look forward to the day when we can compete with the heavyweights and be up there in the medals table.'

In a country that is mad about only one sport - cricket - it will take a long time for that day to arrive. What India needs badly are sports heroes and heroines. In badminton ace Saina Nehwal, they have one, as she is now well-recognised. But despite a bronze medal - and this too after her Chinese opponent conceded after winning the first game - Nehwal and company still have a long way to go to even come close to the adulation reserved for the country's cricketing demi-gods such as Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

Sports are a voyeur's delight and are chiefly viewed by the masses on the sub-continent as a form of escapism from the hardships of life. Cricket is also seen as an avenue out of poverty and probably that is why most youngsters are drawn to it and not other sports.

As far as other sports are concerned, who cares even if it is the Olympics? It will take many moons and many Mittals to change the landscape and the public's perception of sports. Cricket, and hockey to a lesser extent, is the main draw, everything else is a distraction which the man on the street cannot afford to indulge in.

The question has often been raised as to why India cannot follow China's footsteps and become an Olympic powerhouse. The easy answer would be that sports are not supported by a state-sponsored system as in China.

It would seem a state-controlled authoritarian system is better than a free democratic society in producing medal winners. China's assembly-line production of Olympic champions has been widely criticised, but maybe it is a lesson India can learn from, especially with the backing of Mittal's millions.

Apart from success at the Olympics, having millions can buy you almost anything. Mittal, with a fortune of GBP12.7 billion, generously dished out the money for the eye-catching scarlet steel Orbit, which looks like a roller-coaster circuit gone wrong, next to the Olympic Stadium. The man, who eight years ago on a whim bought a Kensington mansion from Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone for GBP57 million, spent GBP23 million on his twisted fantasy.

In return, the story goes, the London organisers, urged by Mayor Boris Johnson and the blessings of IOC president Jacques Rogge, picked Mittal to be one of the Olympic torch-bearers. There had also been pre-Games rumours that Mittal would carry the Indian flag at the opening ceremony but thankfully, that was not the case. The Indian Olympic Committee had to draw the line somewhere.

The day after the opening ceremony, Queen Elizabeth visited the Orbit in the company of Mittal. She turned to him and said: 'It is yours.' Mittal graciously replied: 'Your Majesty, it is ours.'

He is a true Brit, but the billionaire, whose ArcelorMittal steel empire stretches from Kazakhstan to Mexico and employs 260,000 people, has not forgotten the country of his fathers.

That is why he is desperately pumping money into Olympic sports in the hope that one day India can come close to matching Britain. Having failed to achieve success with a democratic foundation, it might be best for India to take a leaf from the book of its giant Asian rival. But somehow, I cannot see that happening, for Indians are too free-spirited to bend to a strict regime of discipline. They have already been spoiled by democracy.