India may have missed winning a gold medal at the 2012 London Games, but its haul of six medals, the best ever at an Olympics, may spark a different kind of gold rush. Corporate sponsorship of Olympic sports and athletes in India has been increasing slowly in the last decade, and the wave of popular interest in and patriotic fervour for the medal winners at London could give this a much-needed boost.

In the wake of the Olympic euphoria, Anand Mahindra, chairman and managing director, Mahindra & Mahindra, tweeted: “Need your ideas on what you think corporations like Mahindra should do to ensure our medal tally merits a carnival in Rio & beyond. Lay it on.."

Mary Kom. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

“Our performance in London is bound to give sports in India a big push," says Geet Sethi, former billiards world champion and co-founder of the Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), a not-for-profit organization that helps athletes with funding and expertise. “We’ve already started getting calls from companies and businessmen who want to contribute. The medal haul has been a validation of our concept, since four of the six medals were won by athletes supported by the OGQ, and another by an athlete supported by the MCT (Mittal Champions Trust), which follows a similar model."

The OGQ, which runs on corporate donations, managed to get 4 crore to spend on its athletes in the one-year period leading up to the London Games. The MCT spent 5.8 crore in the same period. Even the small picture is heartening: The OGQ collected 3.5 lakh between April and June through a platform on their website that allows visitors to contribute to their efforts.

“In every way, this has been a breakthrough Olympics," Sethi says. “Could you have imagined an Indian athlete apologizing the way Mary Kom did for winning a bronze medal? Or the dejection that Sushil Kumar expressed after winning a silver?"

Much of the success at the London Games can be linked directly to athletes who have had the opportunity to move away from the government’s graft-ridden and apathetic sports system. Many in the shooting team trained at the state-of-the-art facilities of Gun For Glory in Pune, which co-owned by Gagan Narang, who won a bronze in the 10m Air Rifle event in London. Gun For Glory is an example of an alternative system for sports infrastructure in the country—it’s a private academy that is run from a government sports complex. Soon after Narang’s win, the Maharashtra government extended the lease, which had ended in April. Shooters, who have faced numerous problems getting ammunition, guns, and coaches in the last couple of years, fell back on the academy for all of these.

“But we’ve struggled with funds ever since we started in 2009," says Pawan Singh, assistant shooting coach of the Indian team and director of Gun For Glory. “We paid for things from our own pockets, and got no success with corporate investors. After his (Narang’s) medal, I think things will change."

Saina Nehwal plays a shot during a practice session at Pullela Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad. Photo: Kumar/Mint

“Yes, we think there will be more corporate sponsorship after the success at the Olympics as well," says Gopi Chand, who won the All England Open Badminton Championship in 2001. “We need a lot more to do the things we really want to do."

This is a model that Maken favours as well. “This is very important, and it is one of our focus points for Opex 2020 (Operation Excellence 2020, the government plan for funding and training athletes for the 2020 Games). I’ve already spoken to Gopi Chand about the government helping to expand his academy. We’ve also helped P.T. Usha’s academy, and we’ve given her a synthetic track which will be ready soon. These are the people who know how the best athletes in the world train, and that makes all the difference. We are going to support these academies. We’ve got private foundations like Olympic Gold Quest and Mittal Champions Trust doing great work as well. And this is the way to grow—some help from the government, commitment from former athletes, some help from the corporate sector and some from private foundations," says Maken.

Maken has urged the corporate sector to come forward and do more for Olympic sports. “Out of 81 players who competed in the Olympics, 65 have jobs directly with the Central government or PSUs (public sector units). Where is the private sector?" he says. “The corporate sector is too interested in brand-building than in helping a sport. SAI (the Sports Authority of India) has 92 different centres in India, and at many places these are not world-class. The private sector should look at adopting these academies, or young athletes who go to train there."

Major companies in India have so far concentrated only on cricket, which is still the only sport in India that enjoys a widespread following and attracts massive revenue. But that bias is shifting slowly. India’s three individual Olympic medals in 2008, their best performance before 2012, was followed by Monnet Ispat and Energy Ltd signing a three-year $1 million (Rs 5.6 crore now) deal to sponsor the Indian boxing team in 2010. Sahara India, official sponsors of the Indian cricket team since 2001, began partially funding 95 athletes in 2009. IMG Reliance, a joint venture between Reliance Industries and US-based sports marketing group IMG Worldwide, signed a 15-year contract with the All India Football Federation worth $155 million. Bharti Airtel became the title sponsors for the F1 Grand Prix of India and the Delhi Half Marathon in 2011. Hero MotoCorp were the title sponsors for the Indian hockey team’s Olympic qualification tournaments, and back golfers Anirban Lahiri, Shiv Kapur and Gaganjeet Bhullar.

While Formula One and golf have worldwide appeal and promise clear returns to investments, funding Olympic sports is not easy.

“You have to take the hard way to fund Olympic sports," says Sandeep Jajodia, managing director, Monnet Ispat and Energy. “You can’t expect immediate returns, you have to think long term. It’s not just sponsoring a well-known event with great brand value, so it’s a commitment beyond just normal business. But saying that, I think now, for the first time, there is serious value in investing in Olympic sports, and many companies will take it up."

But there are other problems as well. Sports federations in India are notoriously opaque and inefficient in their functioning, and this drives away many business houses who want to be associated with a sport. There is a preference instead for private bodies like the OGQ or MCT with their corporate set-ups, transparency, and speedy working environments. “I agree that the corporate sector will only come forward if we have a more transparent way of functioning in our sports federations," Maken says. “This is why I’ve been pushing the sports development Bill for the last one year. The corporate sector can only come in when they have the confidence that the money they are spending is actually going into the sport. We’ve also taken it up with the Planning Commission and the finance ministry to recognize sport as part of infrastructure, so that sports can get viability gap funding, and sports projects can get loans at lower interest rates."

rudraneil.s@livemint.com

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