At an outdoor public pool in Bangalore filled with toddlers in rubber rings and dive-bombing teenagers, two of India’s Olympic swimmers prepare for the biggest race of their lives.
Separated by lane markers from at least 400 locals who pay 38 cents for a cooling dip each day, the elite swimmers carve their way through water turned cloudy green by the chlorine needed to combat the pool’s bacteria. There are no changing rooms, while a lone coach watches over the athletes with a stopwatch.
“The government thinks all you need to be successful in swimming is water,” said Virdhawal Khade, 20, India’s 100-meter freestyle record holder who will lead his nation’s team in London from July. “Unless they start taking sport seriously, it’s hard to see things changing.”
India has won just 18 medals at 21 summer Olympics since 1920, more than half of them in men’s field hockey. At the 2008 games in Beijing, the country where cricket is a national obsession ranked last in the per-capita medals table. Amid scant funding from the government, which is struggling to contain the widest budget deficit among major emerging economies, billionaires Lakshmi Mittal and Mukesh Ambani have stepped in to bankroll training and equipment for athletes and try to put more Indians on the podium in London.
“Sport has never been a government priority, it always faced bigger challenges like poverty reduction, that is why our past performance has, frankly, been disgraceful,” Indian Olympic Association Acting President Vijay Kumar Malhotra said May 2. “As the economy has grown, so have expectations.”
The world’s second most populous country, whose economy has surged fivefold over two decades, allocated $48.1 million to fund athletes in the 16 months leading up to the London Olympics. China spent $450 million each year on sports in the decade before Beijing, where it claimed 100 medals. About half of the 54 Indians who have qualified for London in individual sports rely on some form of corporate support.
Most of the 26 Olympic disciplines, including swimming, rowing and gymnastics, are solely in the hands of poorly run federations lacking world-class training facilities and coaching, said Manisha Malhotra, the administrator of the Mittal Champions Trust and a former tennis player who competed at the 2000 Sydney Games. She’s no relation to India’s acting Olympic chief.
“We are plugging the holes, putting Band-Aids on the shortfalls,” Malhotra said. “None of the private bodies can have the bandwidth that the government has neither do they have the outreach.”
The two richest Indians, Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries Ltd., and U.K.-based Mittal are funding programs to give athletes access to personal trainers, nutritionists, psychologists and state-of-the-art equipment that would otherwise be out of reach. Tata Group, India’s largest business group and owner of Jaguar Land Rover, runs an archery academy. The country’s No. 2 software services exporter, Infosys Ltd., backs an athletics school.
Mittal, chairman of ArcelorMittal, the world’s biggest steel company, decided to intervene after being disappointed with the lack of compatriots to cheer at the 2004 Athens Olympics. He pledged $10 million for a breakthrough in time for this summer’s event.
“This should be the best performance of an Indian contingent,” Mittal told reporters at a press conference at the end of March. “The athletes have worked relentlessly hard for the last four or five years, so some medals have to come.”
For the 150 wrestlers, including Olympian Rajiv Tomar, training in a mud pit near Delhi’s Mughal-era Red Fort, international glory seems a long way off. The men lift rusting barbells as flies buzz around in summer temperatures climbing toward 40 degrees centigrade.
The center, founded by Guru Hanuman, a legendary Indian wrestler who took his name from the monkey god worshiped by many Hindus, sits on land donated in an earlier bout of corporate philanthropy by industrialist Krishna Kumar Birla. The wrestlers train on threadbare mats that also double up as their sleeping quarters.
“We are struggling for the basics like good diet and these boys have to fend for themselves until they get recognized at the national level,” said Maha Singh Rao, a coach at the center as he watched teenagers grappling during evening practice. “It is tough and these kids aren’t from rich families.”
The underfunding of Olympic disciplines stands in sharp contrast to India’s sporting passion, cricket, which isn’t an Olympic sport.
Fueled by money from sponsors, television coverage and ticket sales, the Indian Premier League, the world’s richest cricket franchise, is worth $3.67 billion, according to Brand Finance Plc, a London-based consultancy firm.
While India’s national cricket squad has access to the best equipment, dietitians and fitness trainers, the country’s Olympic shooters have been left without bullets to practice, archers without bows and arrows, and boxers with torn gloves, according to Rahul Mehra, a lawyer who took all India’s Olympic sports federations to the Delhi High Court in 2009, seeking fixed terms for sports chiefs and greater transparency.
Half of India’s 25 Olympic sports federations are run by politicians or their aides with little involvement of former players or professional managers, Mehra said May 3.
Chief on Trial
The Judo Federation of India is headed by Jagdish Tytler, a former Congress party government minister who was probed and exonerated by federal investigators over allegations he incited anti-Sikh riots in 1984. Yashwant Sinha, a senior leader of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, chairs the tennis body. Politicians also oversee the boxing, swimming and archery federations.
“Politicians across parties are running the show and they unite to block change the moment you say reforms,” Mehra said in a phone interview.
The Indian Olympic Association has refused to fire its President Suresh Kalmadi, a legislator from the western state of Maharashtra, even after he was jailed and put on trial for alleged corrupt contracts during preparations for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. Kalmadi, who has been suspended by the ruling Congress Party of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, was bailed in January.
Surrounded by splashing children at the open-air pool in Bangalore, Virdhawal Khade rues India’s sporting failures.
Khade holds the Indian record with a time of 49.27 seconds in the 100 meter freestyle. That’s almost 2.2 seconds slower than the fastest time this year by the Australian swimmer James Magnussen, the world number one over the distance.
Khade was meant to travel to Australia this month to train in a modern pool with other top athletes. The proposal was approved by the National Sports Development Fund, he said, yet the money never materialized.
“They promise but then they don’t deliver,” Khade said.