We’re off and running. And nothing you see in the Commonwealth Games (CWG) will be as swift as has been the turnaround in public opinion—gloom to glee, “horror to hurrah” (as one paper headlined it) in the three-odd hours spanning that spectacular opening ceremony. On Sunday evening, in fact, we almost didn’t dare watch it at all, so scared were we of things going wrong; by Monday we had the confidence to scan the medals table to see just how we had progressed.
Even before the Sunday Spectacle, Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Council (IOC) president, went on record to say that Olympic Games in India are a possibility. Reading through the diplomatese, that’s as much of a commitment as one can expect but I would take it further and say it’s not a possibility, it’s an inevitability.
The great Indian trick: The spectacular opening ceremony at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium turned criticism to praise. Photo: AP
Whether we like it or not, the Olympics will come one day to India—just as Formula 1 has come, just as top-level football will inevitably come. When it comes, we will be held to those high standards of scrutiny—our stadiums, our roads, our security apparatus and, most of all, our ability to take criticism, especially from foreigners.
Those are the rites of passage of any country aspiring to power in the modern world; sport is an increasingly reliable indicator of global creditworthiness, as much for its financial potential as for its emotional quotient. Already we have China speeding off in the distance, fuelled by achievements on the field and, increasingly, off it; we look nervously in the rear-view mirror at the sight of South Africa zooming up, its reputation as an efficient, friendly host of mega sporting events cemented by the stunning success of the football World Cup. And you can be sure they’ll get to the Big O before we do.
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Yet get there we will, because we have to and because the world will want us to. Over the next few days, our impact on the medals table may be minimum but how we perform off the field could be as important, if not more so. Every timer and weighing machine, every advertisement hoarding, every stadium shuttle bus, every security check—every step and misstep in the CWG will echo in the wider world of sports business. Because the world has bet on India.
The India Factor is just too big to ignore, and goes far beyond cricket. Does anyone recall Sania Mirza’s second-and third-round games in her debut Australian Open in 2005? They were telecast live and—here’s the really big thing, given that she was a nobody then—played in the primetime late-evening slot, which would suit Indian viewers. Does anyone still wonder why Diego Forlan travelled 28 hours from Montevideo to Kolkata—via Brazil, South Africa and Dubai—barely a fortnight after being named the player of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (Fifa) World Cup? And for the launch of a relatively obscure TV channel? Or why officials from the English Premier League’s top clubs make regular trips to India—the most recent being Chelsea’s marketing head Ben Wells (who told this paper he thought football would “explode” in India in the next three years).
It’s not for the exotic (though Wells took time out to try the kebabs at Karim’s in Old Delhi, which he gave 10/10); it’s for the simple fact that India is happening.
The niche sports are equally bullish. Formula 1 has already put its money where its mouth is—India will host its first F1 race next October. Basketball had its own Forlan moment through Pau Gasol, star of the title-winning LA Lakers, who visited India in August along with the Larry O’Brien Trophy—the first time ever that a reigning champion had visited the country. The NBA has a microsite dedicated to India, has mini-shops inside select Adidas stores and even ran a customized, behind-the-scenes mini-series during the NBA finals this year.
Make no mistake—none of these events will be organized in a manner anywhere near as shambolic as the CWG. The Noida F1 race, for example, is being organized by the Jaypee Group, a distinction Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone was quick to draw when the CWG shambles was at its peak. The Indian Premier League’s (IPL’s) success—and popularity among its vast collection of stars—is due in no small part to the organizational skills of the International Management Group (IMG), whose ability to run the tournament with clockwork precision seems a snip at $6-8 million (Rs 27-36 crore). And nothing sharpens the focus or quickens the work rate as much as a large financial carrot—the kind that was sorely lacking in the CWG.
There is room, though, for the much-maligned jugaad. For the same South Africans who impressed us with their handling of the IPL at short notice were themselves under no illusions—they were merely the implementers, the audacious idea, the energy and the conviction came from Lalit Modi. That style of fusion management—a finger on the country’s pulse and an eye on the profit margin—could well be India’s X factor in the biggest match of them all.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo.
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