Just over four years ago, Manisha Malhotra, a former national tennis champion, was starting a new career. Four years and a few months later, she is among the most influential people in Indian sports.
King-maker: Mittal Champions Trust’s Manisha Malhotra is a former national tennis champion. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Malhotra, 34, underplayed the list of 50 Most Influential People in Indian Sport published by the Indian edition of the Sports Illustrated (SI) magazine recently, saying she had no influence because she did not have a say in the country’s policymaking. But her presence at No. 32 comes because of her potential to change Indian sport in the future.
As administrator of the Mittal Champions Trust (MCT) that started in November 2005, Malhotra has a fund of $10 million (around Rs47 crore) earmarked to find India’s Olympic champions for the 2012 games in London. Along with Viren Rasquinha, chief operating officer of Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), who is No. 31 on the SI list, she belongs to the few private endeavours aimed at finding sporting champions in a country bogged down by lethargic governmental efforts.
MCT funds around 35 (the number varies) athletes in six different disciplines—archery, athletics, boxing, shooting, squash and wrestling—along with a few coaches in each field. Some prominent names include boxer Akhil Kumar and squash player Joshna Chinappa.
The trust pays for their foreign training and participation, upkeep during camps, provides coaches and access to infrastructure. Malhotra says there is no corpus fund; finances come in on a “need basis” after annual reviews. On the trust board are steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, his son Aditya, son-in-law Amit Bhatia, tennis player Mahesh Bhupathi, former cricket captain Rahul Dravid and Malhotra. Shooter Abhinav Bindra, who used to be a beneficiary till 2008, is also on the board.
Along with her small team, Malhotra selects the athletes with help from consultants, both Indian and foreign, and follows up on everything—“from booking tickets, finding coaches, negotiating with state and national sport associations”.
India won its first individual Olympic gold medal only in 2008, with Bindra. In this scenario, MCT has an onerous task—to produce multiple winners in 2012. As the administrator of this fund, Malhotra has a job with tremendous potential but many challenges.
“Often, we have athletes who, once they have represented the country and got a job, don’t have the motivation any more. That’s a challenge—to keep them motivated,” says Malhotra at her office in Nariman Point, Mumbai.
The second test, for her trust, is to communicate with the athletes on what they need to do. “Boxers, for instance, don’t want to go abroad. They don’t like it there; they have to adjust to food, their English is not proficient. For boxing, wrestling and shooting, one doesn’t need to go abroad but we need to bring the expertise here.”
The third is obviously administration. Malhotra has played tennis at the top level long enough to be familiar with the dealings of associations. She says it has changed since her time because players now get much more foreign exposure. But it has also “fostered a lot of corruption. There is enough money in the sport but you need to know what to do with it. Tennis has a budget of Rs70 crore, but is the federation utilizing it? It’s more than my budget for five-seven years. The federations are not justifying the expense.”
She says trusts such as MCT and OGQ will not be able to solve certain problems. “The reach of the Sports Authority of India goes further than anyone else. But the place is an abyss. You have to run sport like a corporation. The government has a panel of six IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officers to disburse money for the Commonwealth Games. That does not work. What you need is a panel of experts who are honest and knowledgeable.”
It remains one of Malhotra’s biggest grouses—the underuse of available expertise. She says India has more world champions now than ever before, but most accomplished sportsmen disappear after their playing days instead of being incorporated into the system. “Look at Abhinav Bindra. He knows more about the air rifle than anyone in the world. When he travels, coaches from everywhere ask him for advice. But our federation is fighting him instead of using him... I am sure most experts in their field would be happy to impart their knowledge. Don’t let them go into oblivion, use them as advisers.”
She says the trust spends only Rs5-6 crore a year because they don’t need to spend more. “Our athletes are not there yet,” she says.