Corporate India Catches Olympic Fever

Ambani and Mittal step in to help India’s underfunded Olympic effort
Olympic aspirants for India in training Photograph by India Today Images

At a 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, the athletes carve their way through water turned cloudy green by chlorine. “The government thinks all you need to be successful in swimming is water,” says Virdhawal Khade, 20, India’s 100-meter freestyle record holder, who will compete in London in July.

India has won just 20 medals at 21 Summer Games since 1920. Funding is scant, with the government struggling to contain a serious budget deficit. So billionaires Lakshmi Mittal and Mukesh Ambani and a consortium of Indian companies have stepped in to help bankroll the athletes, with a focus on boxing, shooting, wrestling, badminton, and archery.

“Sport has never been a government priority. It always faced bigger challenges, like poverty reduction. That’s why our past performance has, frankly, been disgraceful,” says Vijay Kumar Malhotra, acting president of the Indian Olympic Association. The government has allocated $48.1 million to the Olympic effort in the 16 months leading up to the London games. China spent $450 million each year on sports in the decade before the Olympics in Beijing and claimed 100 medals at those games.

In India, most of the 26 Olympic disciplines, including swimming, rowing, and gymnastics, are solely in the hands of poorly run federations that lack proper facilities and coaching, says Manisha Malhotra, administrator of the Mittal Champions Trust, which has earmarked $10 million for the Olympic effort. The money helps, but it’s not enough. “We are plugging the holes, putting Band-Aids on the shortfalls,” Malhotra says of the trust’s work. Funds from Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries, and U.K.-based steel magnate Mittal are giving athletes access to personal trainers, nutritionists, psychologists, and state-of-the-art equipment. Tata, India’s largest conglomerate, runs an archery academy. Infosys backs an athletics school.

Mittal stepped in after having no compatriots to cheer at the 2004 Olympics. He pledged to help produce some world-class athletes for this summer. “This should be the best performance of an Indian contingent,” he told reporters in March. Mary Kom, a boxer backed by the Mittal trust, is favored to win a medal.

For the 150 wrestlers training in a mud pit near Delhi’s Red Fort, international glory seems a long way off. The men lift rusting barbells as the temperature hovers near 104F. They train on threadbare mats that double as mattresses at night. “It’s tough, and these kids aren’t from rich families,” says Maha Singh Rao, a coach.

India’s Olympic shooters have been left without bullets for practice, archers have no bows and arrows, and boxers use torn gloves, says Rahul Mehra, a lawyer who challenged India’s Olympic sports federations in the courts of Delhi in 2009, seeking fixed terms for federation chiefs and greater transparency in hiring. Half of India’s 25 Olympic sports federations are run by politicians or their aides with little input from former players or trained managers, says Mehra. India’s Judo Federation is run by Jagdish Tytler, an ex-government minister who was investigated for allegations that he incited anti-Sikh riots in 1984 and exonerated. “Politicians across parties are running the show, and they unite to block change the moment you say ‘reforms,’ ” Mehra says. Repeated efforts to reach Tytler for comment were unsuccesful.

The underfunding stands in sharp contrast to India’s national passion: cricket. Backed by sponsors, television coverage, and ticket sales, the Indian Premier League is worth $3.67 billion, according to consultants Brand Finance.

The Indian Olympic Association has refused to fire its president, Suresh Kalmadi, a legislator from Maharashtra state. He was jailed and put on trial for allegedly taking a bribe to rig the bidding to supply the timing system at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. Kalmadi, who has been suspended as a member of the ruling Congress Party, is out on bail and denies the charge. The court has yet to rule.

As children splash in the Bangalore pool, swimmer Khade rues India’s sporting failures. He has clocked 49.27 seconds in the 100-meter freestyle. That’s almost 2.2 seconds slower than the fastest time this year by Australia’s James Magnussen, a gold medal contender. A proposal to send Khade to train in Australia with other athletes was approved by the National Sports Development Fund, he says, yet the money never materialized. “They promise, but then they don’t deliver.”