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Home / Opinion / Columns /  What it will take to fulfil India’s Olympic aspirations

India and Indians are basking in the gentle afterglow of Neeraj Chopra’s late gold medal for Javelin at the recently concluded 2020 Tokyo Olympics. An aspirational India is beginning to ask questions about when India will obtain medals commensurate with its population size and when we would be in a position to host the Summer Olympic Games.

First, some background. Conducting the Summer Olympics is a really expensive proposition. The Beijing Olympics of 2008 has the record for being the costliest, with a total budget estimated at over $44 billion. Modest only in comparison, the Rio de Janeiro Olympics of 2012 cost $13.1 billion and the Tokyo games of 2020 held a year late cost an estimated $15.4 billion. To put that in perspective, we could install 7,500 new schools, set up 500 tertiary-care hospitals with 300 beds each, purchase 150 new Airbus 320 planes, or acquire a fully-equipped modern aircraft carrier for that sort of money. And yet countries and cities keep bidding for the summer games.

There are typically two types of bidders for the Summer Olympics. The first group is of developing countries keen to trumpet their arrival on the world stage, as seen in the case of Tokyo back in 1964, Moscow in 1980, Seoul in 1988, Beijing in 2008 and Rio in 2012. The second group is represented by cities in developed countries that seek to rejuvenate themselves or redirect interest in domestic federal politics. Munich in 1972, Montreal in 1976, Los Angeles in 1984), Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996 were examples of this. Hosts for the next few Olympic games—Paris (2024: Group 2), Los Angeles (2028: Group 2) and Brisbane (2032: Group 2)—illustrate that these have been awarded to the second group.

Olympic hosts from among developing countries have had per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) of at least $4,000 (China) or as high as $13,000 (Brazil) at the time of the games. Bidders that entered the process in recent times but did not go the whole hog, such as Budapest, Istanbul, Baku, Doha, Nairobi, Kyiv, Casablanca, and Malaysia and Singapore (jointly) illustrate the remarkable sociological signalling value of hosting the Olympics. The cost of a bid alone is estimated to be north of $50 million.

Historically, Olympic bids started about 8 or 9 years before each event and by mandate were awarded 7 years prior to the games. The International Olympics Committee (IOC) recently changed its mandate to permit greater flexibility on the 7-year rule and also work towards nurturing countries or cities as potential applicants. With the change in rules, Brisbane was awarded the 2032 games 11 years in advance, soon after the conclusion of the Tokyo games. The evaluation and bidding process typically proceeds in three stages, spaced across a period of about 18 months. The first stage involves a vision, games concept and strategy. The second stage involves governance, legal provisions and venue funding, and the third is related to games delivery, experience and venue legacy.

Contrary to popular perception, a few games have astonishingly turned a profit. Seoul (1988, estimated $300 million profit), Los Angeles (1984, $250 million) and Beijing (2008, $146 million) are recent examples of games that are said to have been profitable. The most recent two—Rio and Tokyo—have lost billions of dollars, though Tokyo’s was held in the midst of a pandemic. Management rigour and the re-use of existing transportation and housing facilities appear to hold the key to at least breaking even on the monumental costs.

India’s GDP per capita is a little over $2,000 today. It is likely to take India about 15-20 years to double that (in constant dollars). It seems likely that like every country that has ‘arrived’, India will make a bid for hosting an Olympics just around ‘India@100’, a psychological and sociological landmark, in celebration of a hundred years of Indian independence.

Reflecting just such a view, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal recently issued the first political call to host the 2048 games. In the years ahead, more politicians could be expected to join this bandwagon and echo the aspirations of a young and rising India.

As for medals, the evidence is clear. Neeraj Chopra trained under the legendary East German athlete Uwe Hohn in Berlin. Hohn is the only athlete to throw a javelin (albeit an earlier design no longer allowed) over 100 metres; Chopra won with a throw of 87.58 metres. Shuttler P V Sindhu trained under South Korean Park Tae Sang. Medals are a function of facilities, training, coaching and focus. Each of these in turn is a function of money and talent. India’s size and heterogeneity assures raw talent. Idealists may protest that big money is antithetical to the spirit of amateur sport, and yet it is where the world is. A very rough estimate is that it costs about $5 million to achieve a medal. To break into the top ten countries on the Olympic medals table, India will need to secure 35-40 medals, requiring an outlay of about $200 million for each Olympics. Launched in 2014, India has a Target Olympic Podium Scheme, which provides financial assistance to potential medal winners. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but it appears that its allocation for the Tokyo games was a little below $20 million.

India will, in all probability, bid for the summer games around India@100. How high and far India’s Javelin will travel will depend on money and focus.

P.S: Citius, Altius, Fortius, Team India.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand

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