Mumbai / Sydney: India’s three Olympic rowers will be paddling upstream in Beijing. The team practices on Hyderabad’s Hussain Sagar lake, where dead dogs float in sewage from homes and factories. The secretary general of India’s rowing federation, M.V. Sriram, can’t watch his rowers in China because the government won’t pay his airfare.
“They are forced to work from home and practice in polluted lakes,” Sriram says. “We have been fighting with the government to get a national rowing academy.”
The world’s second most populous country has one of the worst Olympic legacies, winning just 17 medals since 1900. While China, India’s chief economic rival, made sports a national priority in its drive to top the medal count this year, Olympic sports are still neglected in India, spurring billionaire Lakshmi Mittal to fund a training academy for potential medalists.
India doesn’t have enough tracks, pools and gymnasiums to nurture Olympians because the nation still struggles to feed its people, and the popularity of cricket drains talent from other sports, economists and athletes say. Only 5% of India’s 1.1 billion people have access to sports facilities, says youth affairs and sports minister Mani Shankar Aiyar.
“India is a significant underperformer,” John Hawksworth, head of macroeconomics at PricewaterhouseCoopers Llp. in London, said in a June report that used economic models to predict Olympic results. “Indian sport tends to be focused on events that are not included in the Olympics, most importantly cricket.”
India, the second fastest growing major economy after China, budgeted the equivalent of $280 million (Rs1,176 crore) for sports this year. It won a single medal at the 2004 Athens games, a silver in double trap shooting, and plans to send 57 athletes to Beijing.
By contrast, China created a network of national sports schools to nurture talent and spent an average of $450 million a year on sports for the past decade. China won 63 medals in Athens and will have 639 athletes in Beijing — 43 more than the US.
“India’s performance has not been very encouraging but we are slowly improving,” says Raja Randhir Singh, secretary general of the Indian Olympic Association. In an effort to speed up that progress, Mittal, who heads Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal, the world’s biggest steel maker, funded a $10 million sports trust in 2005. The Mittal Champions Trust supports 14 athletes who will compete in Beijing. “There is really no long-term plan,” trust administrator Manisha Malhotra says of the government’s sports programme.
While India’s economy has expanded 9% or more in each of the past three years, a third of the population still lives on less than $1 a day, according to the World Bank.
“India has limited funds and has to build roads, ports, provide drinking water, electricity to people,” says Ajit Ranade, Mumbai-based chief economist for Aditya Birla Group, a $28 billion metals and cement company that also helps promote sports in villages. “Sports is not a livelihood issue.”
In addition, for many Indians sports means cricket. The game is so popular that the fledgling Indian Premier League sold franchises for $2 billion. Some players, including record-setting batsman Sachin Tendulkar, earn more than $1 million a year.
“Cricket is a religion,” says tennis player Leander Paes, who won a bronze medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and will play in Beijing.
One of India’s greatest sporting heroes, 400-metre runner Milkha Singh, is remembered as much for Olympic failure as his years of athletic success. Known as the “Flying Sikh,” Singh finished fourth in a photo finish at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
Paes, 35, is one of five Indians to win individual Olympic medals, none of them gold.
The nation’s only victories came in field hockey, where the men won a record eight tournaments. India won its last Olympic title in 1980 and failed to qualify this year, ending a run stretching back to 1928.
Paes, playing in his fifth Olympics, attributes India’s lack of success to the absence of elite training programmes.
“Money’s not an issue, but quality use of money is important,” Paes, who moved to Florida at 17 to attend a tennis academy, says. “Quality academies that look after how to nurture a champion — that is the call of the day.”
Manavjit Singh Sandhu is one of the Olympians seeking to turn things around. The world champion trap shooter says funding is filtering down. “We will definitely see some results,” Sandhu, 30, says. “But it is going to take a while.”
Danielle Rossingh contributed to this story.