Home >Opinion >Is Salman Khan really the ambassador Indian Olympic Association needs?

Riddle me this. Why is Salman Khan the Goodwill Ambassador for the Indian Olympic Association (IOA)? Because he was involved in the poaching of an endangered chinkara? (A lower court sentenced him to five years in prison and his appeal is currently being heard by the Rajasthan high court). Or because he was allegedly involved in a hit and run case? (He was acquitted by the Bombay high court but that has been appealed before the Supreme Court) Or because he’s a wrestler in his upcoming film, Sultan? Yes, I know, it’s not really a riddle. But the questions still stand.

What is it that qualifies a controversial personality—albeit a superstar—to be named by IOA as goodwill ambassador for the Indian contingent to the Rio Olympics? On Saturday, IOA made the announcement at its headquarters at an event attended by Indian athletes and sportspersons such as five-time World Champion boxer MC Mary Kom and Indian men’s hockey team captain Sardar Singh and Salman Khan.

What has followed after this has swung between the ludicrous to the insulting to the offensive and has once again displayed that in India if you’re a superstar, nothing matters.

Now I’m not the only one who’s perplexed by this appointment. Athletes including well-known wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt and sprinting legend Milkha Singh have expressed dismay at an actor being chosen and at Salman Khan being the actor. Former Indian hockey player Viren Rasquinha tweeted that he wanted to be the brand ambassador for Housefull 3’s movie promotion.

Sunil Gavaskar and Abhinav Bindra have supported the appointment and commented that they feel Khan’s mass appeal will increase awareness about sports ahead of the Rio Games. And in a statement released on Sunday, IOA secretary general Rajeev Mehta said, “He (Salman) is the biggest Bollywood star in the country in terms of mass following and our key objective of bringing him on board is to draw maximum attention from the masses, due to which there will be more eyeballs and viewership which will eventually result in popularizing Olympic sports in the country".

Which I don’t disagree with. I understand completely why IOA has decided to make a Bollywood celebrity the “goodwill" brand ambassador. The adulation and fan following of Bollywood in India is well-known. And of course, having an Amitabh Bachchan or even someone as unsuccessful as Abhishek Bachchan promoting kabaddi or hockey helps promote the sport and make it more popular. Everyone loves a star, including sportspersons themselves. And if appointing a Bollywood star is what is required to motivate youngsters to join sports, then so be it. Of course, a sportsperson as brand ambassador would have been ideal—but whether the sports fraternity accepts it or not, the mass appeal of a Bollywood star, sadly, is more than that of an athlete.

The issue is not about having a celebrity as brand/ goodwill ambassador. The issue is, who the celebrity is. And therein lies the problem.

Let’s not forget that here is a man who was involved in a hit and run case where his car ran over five pavement dwellers in 2002. Four of them were injured—leading to loss of limb in one; another died. The Bombay high court acquitted him. But the Maharashtra government has challenged the Bombay high court verdict acquitting him. And like any case involving a celebrity in India this case was replete with missing evidence, hostile witnesses, new testimony which suddenly popped up.

Just so you have all the facts, the State said that the high court judgment was a “complete travesty of justice" and attorney-general Mukul Rohatgi submitted that the high court chose to discard the versions of the police and injured persons who said that Khan was the person driving the car. Rohatgi has also stated that the alcohol content in Khan’s blood samples even 12 hours after the incident showed double the permissible limits.

This is not the only case he is involved in. There is the poaching case dating back to 1998, and during shooting of the film Hum Saath Saath Hain. In this case, he has friends to thank because Saif Ali Khan, Tabu, Neelam and Sonali Bendre are charged with inciting Salman to hunt.

It seems that either Salman is under the influence or he’s being influenced.

There is another case against him for the alleged illegal possession of arms in connection with the same poaching case. The case under the Arms Act was registered after it was found that the licences of the weapons supposedly used by him had expired. Khan has of course denied all the charges of poaching and illegal possession of weapons. He’s also already spent time in the Jodhpur jail in April 2006 and in August 2007 and his appeal in both cases is being heard in the Rajasthan high court.

If he is innocent of all these crimes, then he’s one unlucky man. Then, that can’t be good for the IOA either.

The question: is a celebrity who is as controversial as this, really the kind of brand ambassador we need? It’s not like he’s been accused of shoplifting or jaywalking or even abusing a security official at Wankhede.

But try explaining that to his father Salim Khan, who tweeted to Milkha Singh that Bollywood is “The same industry which resurrected you from fading away in oblivion" and that “Sportsmen are performing because of sports lovers like us" and that “Salman khan may not have competed but is an A level swimmer cyclist and weight lifter". Now what can one say about a father’s love. Or about Salim Khan’s exalted sense of self and level of entitlement.

BJP MP Hema Malini also came out in support of IOA’s decision by saying, “People love him so much. So if he is the brand ambassador, what is the problem". When reminded of the hit-and-run case, she said that was a “section of his life…his popularity has to be utilised for a good cause".

That those defending Khan’s appointment as brand ambassador—whether it be his father, Hema Malini or Gavaskar and the IOA—do not understand why it is so wrong, is what’s surprising. They’re basically saying that it matters not what crimes may have been committed by a celebrity, as long as he or she is a celebrity and wildly popular with the masses. Oh, and according to his father, as long as he’s a physically fit star. That’s a great message to give our youngsters. Now that’s something to aspire to.

Since the IOA is going ahead with Khan as brand ambassador, my only advice is to the Brazilian authorities. Keep a close eye on that endangered giant otter. After all, as Salim Khan has told us, Salman is an “A level swimmer" and we all know his love for wildlife.

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