Beijing: A globe-trotting steel billionaire and two former world champions have ensured India’s sportsmen will not cite lack of funds as an excuse if they fail at the Olympics.
In a country where fortune and fame is reserved mainly for cricketers, Olympic hopefuls have blamed the absence of world-class training facilities and monetary benefits for their poor performance.
Bull’s eye: A file photo of archer Mangal Singh, who was picked up in February 2006 and sent to the Mittal Champions Trust. Photograph: HT
But two separate initiatives, one by steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and the other a joint effort by former All-England badminton champion Prakash Padukone and billiards great Geet Sethi, will break new ground at Beijing.
Mittal, whom Forbes lists as the world’s fourth richest man with a personal fortune of $45 billion (Rs1.9 trillion), kicked off the campaign in 2005 to ensure a brighter future for India’s Olympic sportspersons.
Disappointed at India’s lone medal at the Athens Games, the industrialist put aside $10 million to promote sporting excellence in the country through the Mittal Champions Trust. Mittal hoped at least 10 of the trust’s 32 beneficiaries would qualify for Beijing. Three years on, 13 have made the grade with a promise they are not at the Olympics just to make up the numbers.
“We have taken care of all their needs,” the trust’s administrator Manisha Malhotra said. “These include training, competitive exposure, physios, fitness and dietary supplements.”
Archer Mangal Singh, who shot birds with bows and arrows in his remote village of Ichakuti in Jharkhand, was picked up in February 2006 and sent to the trust’s training centre near Bangalore.
Singh, 24, repaid that faith by helping India win the men’s recurve team event in the World Cup in Antalya, Turkey, ahead of the Olympics.
The shooters who joined the trust were sent abroad for training and assured of quality ammunition that was so scarce in India that the country’s federation threatened to boycott the Olympics.
Padukone and Sethi, tired of cricket’s monopoly in the corporate sector, joined hands with like-minded businessmen in 2006 to launch the Olympic Gold Quest Foundation to help medal hopefuls.
The foundation is sponsoring rifle shooter Gagan Narang at the Olympics, one of India’s medal contenders after winning a bronze at the World Cup in Beijing in April.
“I am really grateful to the Gold Quest,” said Narang. “The feeling that someone is there to support you all the way is sometimes enough to make the difference.”
India’s annual sports budget of $280 million is less than half of the $724 million eight franchises paid for owning cricket teams in the Indian Premier League in May-June. India, whose Olympic success has been defined by eight hockey golds till 1980, has won just four individual medals, the best being shooter Rajyavardhan Rathore’s silver at Athens.
Sethi, a six-time world professional billiards champion, said he was confident India’s Olympic goals will match the hysteria that cricket creates.
“I have found that emotional and patriotic sentiments are high in India when it comes to raising funds for the elusive Olympic individual gold,” Sethi said. “After all, the sporting culture of any nation is not defined by the mass hysteria generated by a single team event such as football or cricket or baseball, but by the country’s performance in Olympic sports.”