Global Economics

How India Can Close Olympic Gap with China


To match Beijing's glory, New Delhi is gunning to snag the 2020 Games, but India has a ways to go in infrastructure and athlete training

Across Asia, hosting the Olympic Games is treated as a sign that a developing country has arrived. Tokyo became the first Asian city to host the Olympics, in 1964, within two decades of Japan's defeat in World War II. South Korea announced its economic ascendancy by hosting the Games in Seoul in 1988.

Now, just 30 years after China's economy began to open up, Beijing is hosting the Games, and the Chinese team is scooping up a substantial number of medals. Will this happen for the other rising Asian economic power, India? The country aspires to match China's record and has proposed that its capital, New Delhi, host the 2020 Summer Games (BusinessWeek.com, 8/13/08). As with most aspects of India, the answer is not simple. At least three hurdles are apparent.

First, there is the country's pathetic performance in Olympiads. In Athens in 2004, India's 1.1 billion citizens produced only one medal winner. Even North Korea, with five medals, outperformed India. Since it began participating in 1928, India has generally won no more than a sole medal, with the exception of the 1952 event in Helsinki where it came away with two: hockey and wrestling. In Beijing, Abhinav Bindra (BusinessWeek.com, 8/12/08) has caused a sensation in India by becoming the first individual to win a gold medal. Still, few people outside India will notice or care, since there is scant hope of India's ranking among the top 50 medal winners. In contrast, China's medal haul is likely to put it among the top two countries this year.

The Commonwealth Games: A Trial Run

Then there is the issue of upgrading the infrastructure on time in a fractious democracy. In October 2010, New Delhi will host the Commonwealth Games, a gathering of about 6,000 athletes from the 72 countries with historic ties to Britain. Olympics boosters in India see these games as a showcase for India's Olympics bid for 2020. But upgrading roads and bridges and building tunnels in a city of 14 million is challenging. Hundreds of ancient monuments dot the Delhi landscape. These must be protected, and so must the homes of millions of voters. Public interest litigation has threatened to slow down some construction, such as the Olympic Village being built in the flood plain of the Yamuna River.

India's booming economy keeps the good New Delhi hotels full in normal times. Despite new construction, the capital is expected have a shortfall of more than 10,000 hotel rooms during the Commonwealth Games. The Olympics will stretch India's capacity much further. Solutions that work in autocratic China won't work in India's raucous open society.

And that brings us to the third challenge. Indian voters have become inclined to driving incumbent governments out of power, and coalitions composed for former members of the opposition often prefer to reverse the previous regime's decisions. Yet to win and host the Games, India's politicians and bureaucrats will need to rise above partisan differences for the next 12 years and keep the International Olympic Committee convinced that India can deliver.

Crazy About Cricket

But having worked with the new India as an American management consultant, I have learned that India often has a few surprises lurking beneath the surface. In this case, digging reveals a more pleasant picture. It's not that Indians don't care about sports. If you combine the American passion for baseball, (American) football, and basketball, you don't begin to approach the Indians' love for cricket. Large foreign sponsors such as Pepsi (PEP), Coke (KO), Vodafone, Hyundai, Sony (SNE), and Indian companies such as Hero Honda, DLF, and others spend a fortune on cricket. In fact Bindra, who won the Olympic gold this month for air rifle shooting, was awarded 2.5 million rupees ($58,000) by the cricket body in India, the Board of Control for Cricket in India.

The problem is that cricket is not an Olympic sport and is unlikely to become one. However, the wild success of cricket's Indian Premier League, which launched this year, has convinced companies in India to build wider links to the world of sports. Some of this new funding will seek avenues other than cricket. Some physically adept athletes who play non-Olympic sports such as Kabaddi or Kho-Kho will be drawn to sports where world-class training could product medal winner in mainstream events.

In my view, private funding and nongovernmental zeal are likely to bear fruit for Indian athletes by the 2012 London Games. For example, in 2005, London-based steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal set up the Mittal Champions Trust with a $10 million endowment to find and train promising Indian athletes. Its flock of 32 produced over a dozen that qualified to travel to Beijing this year. Another group, Olympic Gold Quest, with less funding but more sports experience, supported just two athletes: shooter Gagan Narang and runner Tintu Luka. Gold Quest is the brainchild of Geet Sethi, a billiards champion, and Prakash Padukone, India's best-ever badminton player.

Mukesh Ambani at Beijing

I expect tens of millions of dollars of new private and corporate funding to support athlete training in India during the next five years. Mittal's endowment was inspired by watching India's dismal results in Athens in 2004; Mukesh Ambani, India's wealthiest resident, arrived in Beijing in his own jet and may take similar measures to train potential Indian Olympians. Ambani has already shown his affinity for sports: His company, Reliance Industries, owns the Mumbai Indians, a cricket team in the Indian Premier League.

There's also plenty of evidence that India can build and manage major infrastructure projects. The ultramodern Delhi Metro train system is the most celebrated instance of a program that has consistently beaten time targets and stayed closed to budget. In fact, Delhi Metro is being expanded all the way to the airport in advance of the Commonwealth Games. My work as a management consultant takes me all over the cities of India, and I observe new airports, highways, factories, and office towers coming up across the country, most of which will be completed by 2011 or so. As some of this talent and expertise is directed to an Olympic effort, I have no doubt that India can deliver what the International Olympic Committee may seek in its review in 2012.

So here are my predictions: Rising aspirations among India's politicians, bureaucrats, and business leaders will accelerate an alignment of interest focused on national pride. India will pull out all the stops in order to win the right to host the 2020 Games. If for some reason if it fails, India will go to the ends of the earth to host the following Olympiad. Alas, the Indian home team will still not be among the top 10 performers despite the home court advantage in 2020 or 2024. Cricket will continue to rule the Indian psyche. And India will have arrived on the international scene well in advance of the date it hosts the Olympic games.


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