Olympic Gold Medals Do Not Come Cheap
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04 Aug,2012 09:52 IST

Olympic Gold Medals Do Not Come Cheap

Corporate India has to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to sports

Nevin John

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Are You Game For Olympics?

POWER PLAY: Gagan Narang with his Olympic bronze (AP)

In the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, all eyes were glued to one athlete — Carl Lewis. While the US athlete was sprinting and jumping his way to sporting glory, a lanky Indian girl named P.T. Usha was readying at the starting blocks for the 400 metre hurdles semifinals. No one, not even the Indian media, had given her a shot at winning a medal. India’s lone individual Olympic medal until then was a distant memory.

 
But Usha, who had trained barefooted on the beaches of Payyoli in north Kerala, ran a stunning race to qualify for the finals, finishing first in the semifinals. Then came the day when the country went into mourning: Usha missed the Olympic bronze medal by a whisker, 1/100th of a second. Later in her career, Usha went on to win several international medals — 101 to be precise — making her a legend in her own right.
 
But when she thought of starting an athletics school in the early 2000s to groom young talent, Usha realised that her achievements and dedication were far from enough to raise funds. “We approached many big corporate houses, but their responses were cold. So, we decided to spend from our own pocket,” says V. Sreenivasan, a former athlete and Usha’s husband. He is also treasurer of the Usha School of Athletics.
 
The Kerala government offered them a 30- acre plot and a grant of Rs 15 lakh, and the Rs 20-crore project took off in a small way in 2002. Despite facing a funds crunch from time to time, Usha’s school succeeded in producing several talented athletes. For instance, Tintu Luka, a product of the school, is India’s hope in the 800 metre race at the London Olympics. The school focuses on identifying talent early — from sub-junior levels — and grooms them for the future. In fact, it has already identified talent for the next two Olympics.
 
Tintu Luka  with mentor and coach P.T. Usha
After years of struggle, the sports scenario is changing, albeit slowly. Usha now gets corporate support. P.N.C. Menon, chairman of Sobha Developers, and directors of Infosys support her school now. Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), a non-profit sports charitable trust, provided it gymnasium equipment. But the school does not have a suitable place to house them; it has been dumped in a hostel room. “We are searching again for corporate support to build a gymnasium,” informs Sreenivasan.
 
A change needs to happen from the grassroots level and, first and foremost, India needs to develop a sporting culture, feels Viren Wilfred Rasquinha, former captain of the Indian hockey team and CEO of OGQ. “That should start from schools. Sports is just an extracurricular activity in schools. Children should find sports interesting,” he says. “But today, there are no proper grounds, equipment or trained teachers.”
 
In that sense, Abhinav Bindra, who struck gold at the Beijing Olympics, was fortunate. He had an indoor shooting range installed at his home in Patiala for practice. His family could afford German coaches. The bronze medallist in London, Gagan Narang, began shooting at the posh Country Club in Hyderabad. 
 
But Luka’s story is different. When she joined Usha’s school in 2002, she was an undernourished 12-year-old. Her family, living in a two-room, asbestos-roofed house, could not imagine sending her for training. Similar is the story of the 22-year-old Sepoy from the Madras Regimental Centre, race walker K.T. Irfan, who could not have participated in the Olympics, but for the Army’s backing.

Corporate Contribution
Niraj Bajaj, director of the Bajaj Group, was the national table tennis champion for seven years in the 1970s. He represented India in more than 20 countries. In the final four years of his table tennis career, he led the Indian team. The country honoured him with the Arjuna Award in 1973. “When I was at the peak of my sporting career, I retired because of business commitments,” says Bajaj, the youngest cousin of Bajaj Group chairman Rahul Bajaj. But he continued to nurture his passion for sports.
 
IN SOLIDARITY: Naveen Jindal has made his shooting prowess into a lifelong passion
(ABP)
When Narang won the bronze medal in London on 31 July, one of the first phone calls BW received was from Bajaj. His voice was full of pride. “We did it,” he said. Narang is also supported by OGQ, where Bajaj is a director along with sporting icons Prakash Padukone, Geet Sethi, Leander Paes and Viswanathan Anand. OGQ funds the international coaching and exposure, medical, nutritional and physiological needs of 34 sportspersons. “We also provide quality support staff and administrative assistance,” says Bajaj.
 
Of the sportspersons OGQ backs, 16 have qualified for the London Games. They include boxer MC Mary Kom and badminton player Saina Nehwal. OGQ has installed a personal treadmill for Saina at her home. It bought world class rifles, pistols and other accessories for shooters. In 2010, before the world championship, it sent Tejaswini Sawant and Narang to Hannover in Germany with their personal coaches to select the best ammunition. It organised a month-long training camp in Pune under British boxing coach Charles Atkinson in 2011  for Mary Kom and Usha Nagisetty.
 
Bajaj says OGQ spent Rs 7 crore last year. “Funds are not an issue. We have support from investors. Bajaj trusts also have huge funds. But we aim to receive small donations from individuals and make this vision a mass movement.” Investors such as Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, Edelweiss group chairman Rashesh Shah and Amit Chandra, managing director of Bain Capital Advisors (India), support OGQ now.

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Another initiative is the Mittal Champions Trust, promoted by steel baron Lakshmi Niwas Mittal. The trust promotes archery, boxing, wrestling, athletics and shooting. About 15 of the sportspersons it backs made it to the London Olympics, including shooters Bindra and Ronjan Sodhi, boxer Vikas Yadav, wrestler Geeta Phogat and athlete Sudha Singh. ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel maker, is one of the main sponsors of this Olympics. “I wanted to show my commitment towards the Olympics, towards the city of London and towards sports in general,” said Mittal. 
 
Click on the graphic to view an enlarged version
Former tennis player Manisha Malhotra, CEO of Mittal Champions Trust, is in London to do more than just cheer the participants from the trust. She will also be focusing on the last mile requirements of the sportspersons in their quest for an Olympic medal. 
 
The other industrialist who flew to London, driven by his passion, is one-time national skeet shooting champion Naveen Jindal, chairman of Jindal Steel and Power (JSPL) and a Member of Parliament. Jindal is a keen polo enthusiast as well. At the tender age of six, he began riding lessons after his father O.P. Jindal presented him a horse on his birthday. He emerged as a prolific rider and focused on polo. Thanks to his enthusiasm, JSPL’s polo team became a reality and an integral part of the Indian polo circuit.
 
At 15, Jindal turned to shooting. Again, his first rifle was gifted by his father. He went on to break the national record in skeet shooting. Jindal received intensive training under the renowned Peruvian coach, Juan Ghia Yarur. Jindal, being a politician, even campaigned for amending the policy in favour of duty-free import of arms and ammunition for shooting as a sport. Earlier, only the top 10 shooters were allowed to import arms and ammunition. Jindal’s efforts prompted the authorities to revise the number upwards to 25. As president of the Chhattisgarh Pradesh Rifle Association, he prompted the body to build shooting ranges.
 
Jamshedpur-based Tata Steel started an archery academy in 1996. It is one of the most respected professional archery academies in the country (Sir Dorabji Tata was the first businessman to sponsor an Indian Olympics contingent — six members, including four athletes and two wrestlers, to the Antwerp Olympics in 1920). The 18-year-old archer, Deepika Kumari, who was a medal hope in London, started her professional journey after joining the Tata Academy. Born to an auto-rickshaw driver and a nurse, Kumari struggled her way through hardship to build a career in archery. The world No. 1 archer is an employee of Tata Steel — a manager in the sports division of the company. 
 
ArcelorMittal is a key sponsor of the London Olympics (AFP)
There are a few other steelmakers who have an appetite for sport. For instance, Monnet Ispat, another steelmaker, signed a three-year $1-million deal with the Indian Boxing Federation to sponsor the national team. Though a small gesture, the agreement bodes well for the future of the sport in the country.
 
Flimsy Excuse
Often, corporate India, central and state governments celebrate big sporting triumphs with luxurious gifts to winners. Corporates jump on to the bandwagon in an attempt to promote their brands through the back door. That said, when it comes to supporting sports, many companies cry off, citing the excuses of corruption and political influence.
 
That’s true, to an extent. Says Rasquinha: “The honorary culture should go from sports.” He adds that professionals should run national, state and district-level sports bodies. Corporatisation of management is one of the immediate necessities. “A professional management will know how to market sports. Corporates will come with investments, if they see any return.”
 
He has a point there. Take our sports administration under the Indian Olympic Association (IOA). Suresh Kalmadi’s near-permanent role as its president, until he was dislodged following the Delhi Commonwealth Games scam, is a classic example. The acting president of the association, BJP leader V.K. Malhotra, also dons the role of president of the Archery Association of India. The list of national sports federations put out by the IOA shows several others presiding over such federations for decades. In comparison, the Australian Sports Commission, a government body, is run by a professional chief executive. Similarly, popular Chinese disciplines such as badminton, football, basketball and table tennis are run by professional associations.
 
There are models in financial transparency as well. The United States Olympics Association publicises its annual reports and tax disclosures every year. The association raises funds periodically from various individual donors and corporate sponsors and invests them in sports. The UK and China raise funds for sports management through lotteries monitored by the government. Accountability and credibility of the associations are important factors. Bajaj, who says corporate houses were not investing in sports because of the rampant corruption in sports bodies, feels “the scene is changing now”.
 
But not many buy the corruption logic. “If corporates feel corruption (at institutional and academy levels) prevents them from funding sports, let them set up sports facilities. Corruption is just another excuse for not funding,” says P.K. Deb, secretary, department of sports at the youth affairs and sports ministry. He says a fair number of people fund athletes directly.
 
(BW Pics By Subhabrata Das)
Many experts and sportsmen suggest that public-private partnership is the need of the hour. But does it have takers? Deb says just one proposal came to him for a private-public partnership in sports. That too from a lesser known company. Corporates need to fund lesser known sports as corporate social responsibility and not seek any return on investment, says a veteran athlete. That will help the country spend more on sports. India spent $150 million last year on sports, against $450 million by China.
 
Take India’s largest private company, Reliance Industries (RIL). It supports cricket through its franchise in the Indian Premier League — Mumbai Indians. In addition, its joint venture with global sports major IMG promotes football, basketball and tennis. The size of its funds is not known. “We find the talent in the 14-16 age group and train them abroad. The boys selected for football are trained at IMG Florida. We bet on youngsters,” says an executive.
 
But is that enough? D.D. Rathi, executive president of Aditya Birla Group, says, “In India, everyone’s interest lies in cricket. We, including corporates, do not encourage other sports. That has to be changed.” An email seeking details about the group’s contribution to sports went unanswered. Venugopal Dhoot, chairman and managing director of Videocon, says “result” is an important factor while funding an athlete. “If there is no result, the interest will be lost,” he adds. Dhoot has investments in Videocon School of Cricket in Kolkata, run by former Indian cricket team captain Sourav Ganguly.
 

NEW ROLE: Viren Rasquinha, former captain of the Indian hockey team, heads OGQ
(BW Pic By Subhabrata Das)

  
Life After Medals
In Bindra’s autobiography, 'A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold', the shooter explains that, for an Olympic athlete, fame and glory comes only once every four years. A cricketer can play several Test matches in a year, and a tennis or golf player has several big-ticket events in a year. If they fail in one, they will have a chance at redemption in another event within that year, Bindra writes. A sportsperson’s career peaks and ends at a young age. Very few of them continue playing after 40. Often, the honours they receive are not enough to make a livelihood. Here, corporates can help in a big way. There are good examples. Archer Kumari is one. Her job at Tata Steel helps her focus on targets and secure her future. Similarly, RIL has cricketers Yusuf Pathan, Irfan Pathan and Parthiv Patel on its payroll. 
 
There are more. M.M. Somaya is a name that hockey followers will never forget. In the 1980 Moscow Olympics, he was the right-half in the India squad which bagged the gold medal. He played in the Los Angeles Olympics as well. In the 1988 Seoul Olympics, he led the national team. Somaya was lucky. Oil refiner Bharat Petroleum (BPCL) offered him a job. He was posted in Bangalore as marketing manager.  BPCL went on to spot Somaya’s skills in communicating with people. With a little training, he became its corporate communications head.
 
BPCL employs 150, including Nehwal and Jwala Gutta, as part of its sports quota. Five of its employees are participating in the London Olympics. Apart from oil companies such as ONGC and IndianOil, public sector companies such as Air India, Indian Railways, Haryana and Punjab Police and three defence services too offer jobs to sportspersons. “The situation is better now. Companies recruit sportspersons who find time to get professional qualifications even as they play for the country,” says Somaya.
 
Of course, there is a flipside.  Santhi Soundarajan, who won silver in the 800 metre race at the Doha Asian Games in 2006, lost it after failing a gender test. She is a daily wager in a brick kiln now. The Athletics Federation of India had banned her for life and struck off all her feats. 
 
Call For Change
After Narang struck bronze, the Haryana government offered a reward of Rs 1 crore and Andhra Pradesh chipped in with Rs 50 lakh. One can’t help but wonder whether he would have bagged gold had he received such generous funds earlier. In Brazil, children attend football academies as early as four or five years of age. This explains Brazil’s football prowess and at the same time underscores the importance of timely availability of funds.  
 
It is an irony — peculiar to India — that the world’s No.1 woman archer lives in a dingy two-room house in a Ranchi lane. Kumari’s house is just a few kilometres away from the palatial home of one of India’s biggest earning cricketers, Mahendra Singh Dhoni. He earns Rs 149 crore a year, according the latest Forbes ranking. Dhoni’s wealth does not come from government funds. He gets it from the corporate world, promoting brands. Each sporting discipline needs big money and infrastructure to yield results. That’s the track to take.

With inputs from P.B. Jayakumar and Joe C. Mathew 

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 13-08-2012)
 

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