Narendra Modi with IOC President Thomas Bach

By Tang Lu

India has a large population and is one of the fastest- growing economies in the world. But when it comes to developing competitive sports, with the exception of cricket which is popular across the country, India has had little success.

However, in recent years, India’s sports ecosystem and culture have undergone remarkable changes. With its athletes making historic breakthroughs at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games (CWG) and, more recently, at the Asian Games in Hangzhou (China), India has started to dream of a big role in the global sports stage.

“India will leave no stone unturned in its efforts to organize the 2036 Olympics,” said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the opening ceremony of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) session in Mumbai on October 14. Modi officially confirmed that the world’s most populous nation will bid to host the Olympics.

“This is the age-old dream of the 140 crore (1.4 billion) Indians. We want to realize this dream with your support,” Modi told  IOC president Thomas Bach. He further said that India is willing to host the 2029 Youth Olympics too.

“Sports are not just for winning medals but they are also the best way to win hearts,” Modi added.

Abhinav Bindra
Abhinav Bindra

A Setback

However, India goofed it at the Commonwealth Games (CWG) held in New Delhi in 2010. The infrastructure at the games venue left much to be desired.  When it was awarded the 2010 Commonwealth Games (CWG) in 2003, there was jubilation that it would be a chance to “showcase India’s progressive political system and economic growth” to the world, a prelude to India’s bid to host the Olympic Games.

But unfortunately, the athletes’ villages turned out to be  “uninhabitable”. Construction of stadiums was bad. A few contingents postponed their arrival and some athletes announced their withdrawal on grounds of health and safety. India lost face.

The chaotic organization of the CWG showed how far India fell short of international standards in areas such as administrative efficiency, the Western media said. This raised the question as to how China was able to showcase its strengths by hosting the Olympics, while India, by contrast, was unable to.

Fortunately, not all Indians are pessimistic about the bid for the Olympics after the 2010 CWG disaster.

“CWG should not be an obstacle to stop India from bidding for the Olympics?” said Boria Majumdar, author of the book “Dreams of a Billion: India and the Olympics Story”. According to Majumdar? the first Asiad held in New Delhi in 1951 created a sports infrastructure in India, while the 1982 Asiad turned New Delhi into a ‘modern city’ with ‘one of the swankiest stadia in the world’.  Majumdar asked if Brazil could become a sports superpower through the Rio Olympics, why could India not achieve the same?

More than ten years have passed since the CWG. India’s US$ 3.5 trillion economy has overtaken Britain’s economy to become the world’s fifth-largest. Many leading financial institutions predict that India will be among the world’s top three economies by 2030. India’s rapid economic growth continues to fuel its global dreams including holding the 2036 Olympic Games.

The Olympics will prove India’s economic might. It could display India’s soft power, elevate India’s position in global politics, promote sports culture with world-class infrastructure. It will boost investment and tourism. After all, China did so by holding the Olympics in Beijing in 2008.

But is India ready to hold the 2036 Olympics?  According to the regulations, the IOC will not start the evaluation process until it receives a formal letter of intent from a host Indian city through the Indian Olympic Association. It is understood that the 2036 Olympic Games will not be awarded until after 2025 at the earliest. Poland, Indonesia, Mexico and other countries have also expressed interest in hosting the 2036 Olympics.

Ahmedabad as Venue

There has been no official announcement on which city in India will bid for the Olympics, but the Indian media have reported that Ahmedabad, the largest city in Modi’s home state of Gujarat, is likely to be the country’s top choice as it has drawn up ambitious plans to host the Games and has even broken ground on facilities.

However, an Indian sports journalist who has covered six Olympics, says that facilities in the host city are a critical consideration. Data show that most of the host cities have been national capitals. If Ahmedabad emerges as India’s preferred candidate, it will be an exception. It is neither the national capital nor is it in the top five in the ranking of Indian cities that considers population, size, GDP, cleanliness, etc.

Therefore, Indian media have expressed doubts about Ahmedabad’s ability to be India’s Olympics city: “Our cities are surrounded by garbage dumps. They are overpopulated. Construction debris is scattered on the ground, and the air is choked by inefficient waste management,” said one media outlet.

Could Ahmedabad be readied for the Olympics in 13 years, people wonder. It has a long way to go indeed. With just over 4,000 hotel rooms, Ahmedabad does not have enough capacity to accommodate the expected number of visitors for the Olympics. It needs to increase its hotels and lodging infrastructure by at least five times.

Another worrying factor is, whether these hotels will have enough customers after the Olympics. This question has led many experts to insist that India must assess how host cities’ infrastructure are to be used after the Games.

In addition, the experts expressed concern that Ahmedabad’s sports culture is not strong enough: “Although it has the world’s largest cricket stadium with a claimed capacity of 130,000 people, the stands were empty even for the opening ceremony of the Cricket World Cup. Most other matches filled only about 10 per cent of the capacity.

But the good news is that the new IOC rules have allowed two cities or two regions to host the Olympic Games at the same time. This will not only give India more options in determining the host city but also reduce the pressure on a single city. There is speculation that India will consider giving two cities, Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat state, as the two venues.

Neeraj Chopra
Neeraj Chopra

Past Successes

India has a long history of participation in the Olympics. It was the first Asian country to win an Olympic medal. Unfortunately, due to many factors, India has not become a sports power. Many Indians believe that the overly strong cricket culture has killed the Olympics culture.

So far, India has won just 35 medals at the Olympics, with eight out of the 10 golds coming from hockey. During the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, the then president of the International Olympic Committee asked Indians standing next to him, why India’s millions could not win medals. And the answer he got was: “Indians believe that the most important thing in a game is to participate, not to win a medal.”

More than 50 years after that episode, India’s population has more than doubled and its performance on the international sporting stage remains underwhelming. In 2008, shooter Abhinav Bindra finally won India’s first individual gold medal in the country’s 108-year Olympic history.

But that glimmer of success at the Olympics did not make a lasting impact. An Indian student once told this writer, “Bindra will be forgotten in a few days as an Indian Olympic hero. Because there is no cricket in the Olympics, the Indian media will not pay much attention to the Olympics, and their space will be reserved for cricket. Cricket is the only sport in India that has captured the imagination of the Indian public.”

Indeed, the Indian student was telling the truth. Cricket is synonymous with sports in India, where it is not only a kind of religion but also an important link to business, entertainment and politics.

The explosion in the coverage of cricket stars in the Indian media has taught Indians from a young age that they will be better off playing cricket. That is why cricket is a dominant fixture in India, whether in the country’s bustling cities or the country’s backwoods.

Since major cricket events in India feature many big Bollywood stars, cricket in India has become an entertainment and sports show. This has created an invisible “cricket economy” that other sports are unable to.

Cricket’s near-cult allure in India dwarfs that of any other sport. “Cricket has killed almost all sports in India. Even hockey, which brought India eight Olympic gold medals, has not fared well. Until cricket is banished from the country, no other sport will be encouraged,” an Indian sports fan wrote to a national newspaper to express his dismay.

This is the harsh reality. Every four years there is jubilation as well as bitter reflection on the performance of India’s athletes at the Olympics. But after three minutes of heat, everything is back to normal.

“If India wants to become a sporting power, it needs to give priority to the Olympic movement,” Abhinav Bindra said after winning his gold medal for shooting at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

The good news for India is that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently announced that cricket has been officially included in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. This means that if India is awarded the right to host the 2036 Olympics, cricket will be played in India, and Indian fans will have a chance to witness their beloved cricket team win the Olympic title here in their midst.

Modi to the Rescue

Perhaps influenced by Jawaharlal Nehru’s emphasis on science and education, sports have never been a priority for Indian governments. However, PM Modi attaches great importance to the role of sports in promoting India’s image as a big country. He believes that “sports can be a powerful means to promote national integration”, and is determined to change the face of India from a “sports-weak nation” to a sport-strong nation” through the Olympics strategy.

A few days after the Rio 2016 Olympics Games, Modi  announced the creation of an Olympics-related Strategic Task Force to draw up an action plan to help Indian athletes to “effectively participate” in the 2020, 2024 and 2028 Olympics, as well as the Asiad and Commonwealth Games(CWC).

Under Modi’s guidance, the government think tank NITI Aayog issued a 20-Point Plan to help increase India’s Olympic medal tally by prioritising 10 sports with a high winning potential. The action plan sets out specific measures for the selection and evaluation of athletes, the introduction of coaches and the establishment of a sports management system.

To attract the vast rural population to sports, the government launched a national sports development program called “Khelo India” in 2018, which aims to improve India’s grassroots sports culture by providing necessary sports infrastructure for athletes from rural and remote areas. For potential medal winners the  government has designed the “Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) ” to provide them with full subsidies so that these athletes receive high-quality training and enjoy the necessary sports and technical facilities.

Under the Modi government’s comprehensive sports strategy, India’s sports ecosystem and ordinary people’s perception of sports are changing. As the number of people who follow and participate effectively in sports increases, India’s sports strength is also emerging: India won seven medals at the Tokyo Olympics, its best performance in Olympic history and it crossed the 100-medal mark for the first time in history at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, taking fourth place behind China, Japan and South Korea.

What is more remarkable is that many of India’s rising stars have emerged from remote villages or small towns without any sports facilities to become world-class players in athletics, archery, shooting, badminton and other sports. One of the most prominent of these is Neeraj Chopra, who won the gold in the men’s javelin at the Tokyo Olympics.

Abhinav Bindra’s first individual Olympic gold medal spurred the development of shooting in India, but the success story was not replicated among ordinary Indians, who did not have a wealthy father as in the case of Bindra. Bindra’s father had built a private shooting range and paid for international competitions. Neeraj Chopra on the other hand comes from the countryside. Although only 25 years old, Chopra has won gold medals in various important international events such as the Olympic Games, the World Championships, the World Youth Games, the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games.

Chopra’s story not only inspired many young people to take up athletics but also set an example for them: if you work hard, you can do miracles. You don’t have to be a cricketer.

Bindra told an interviewer that he was plagued by self-doubt when he competed. Now, he says Indian athletes tend to approach the field with a greater degree of confidence: “It’s a completely different mentality,” he said and added: “Indian sports will continue to rise, the country’s investment in sports will increase, more and more sports will be followed, more young people will participate in sports.”

There is thus no denying that India will host the Olympics. The only question is when? Perhaps Modi’s scheme has the answer

(The writer, Tang Lu, was a journalist in India and Sri Lanka for many years)