After the fourth Olympic Games concluded in London in 1908, the Tianjin Youth Magazine posed three questions. According to a Reuters report from 14 years ago, they were:
* When will China be able to send a winning athlete to the Olympic contests?
* When will China be able to send a winning team to the Olympic contests?
* When will China be able to invite the world to Peking (now Beijing) for an International Olympic contest, alternating with those in Athens?
It was only a hundred years later that China invited the world to Beijing, where it hosted one of the grandest Olympic Games.
In India’s context, the third question has been floated around for what feels like time immemorial. And this week, the talks of the country hosting the Olympics gained further momentum.
If at all there were doubts over the seriousness of Gujarat’s ambitions to host the Olympic Games in 2036, two recent developments should put them to rest.
The first was the hosting of the National Games that concluded this month. There was no subtlety in messaging there as, in their official communications, the organisers had legends like Geet Sethi and Pullela Gopichand saying that the National Games were the ‘first step towards Olympic ambitions’.
Then, on Thursday, an Associated Press report suggested that this wasn’t a one-way affair with only Gujarat expressing interest. The news agency said the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is currently in talks with ‘10 potential candidates to host a future Summer Games’. Among them, the piece added, was India.
This is the farthest India has come vis-à-vis its dream to host the Olympics. The IOC update came just days after the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) announced that India and Saudi Arabia are the two countries in the race to host the 2027 Asian Cup. And in the middle of the country hosting the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, the second time India is hosting a global age-group competition in five years.
All this gives an impression of India emerging as the next big hub. But at this juncture, it is important to take a step back and ask if India should be a sports-playing nation or merely a sports-hosting destination.
There are good reasons for India to host these major events – the foremost being that drives large-scale interest and possible financial boost Olympic sports could receive.
There are, however, better reasons to not host them. The inevitable delays and consequent inflated budget that puts the burden on taxpayers are just one part of it. Being competitive and having the ability to fight for medals form the crux of the argument against hosting big events.
One only needs to look at football.
On the eve of the men’s U-17 World Cup in 2017, then All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Praful Patel promised that the tournament would change the face of Indian football. Similar claims were made ahead of the ongoing women’s U-17 World Cup.
In both cases, school-going teenagers were hung out to dry for the vanity of a few, with India losing all matches it played and finishing last among the participating teams. It isn’t clear yet what the Patel-led administration hoped to achieve because their ‘vision’ of developing an ecosystem has failed miserably.
The state of Indian football is as grim as ever, if not worse.
Last week, the country bowed out of the qualifying round of the U-20 AFC Championship, which was earlier a U-19 tournament. It extended India’s dubious run of not qualifying for the competition to 18 years, except once in 2006 when it was the host.
In the last decade, there were close to two dozen opportunities to compete in the highest levels of Asian and World age-group tournaments, the U-16/U-17 and U-19/U-20 Asian and World Cups and U-23 Asian Cup. India competed in just four and in one of them, the 2017 U-17 World Cup, by the virtue of being hosts.
If one were to focus less on the outcomes at age-group levels and more on technical abilities, the results are encouraging either. An analysis of India’s matches in tournaments they’ve competed in shows that on almost every parameter, from possession to passes completed and attempts on goal, the team lags behind their opponents: they are unable to hold the ball, pass it or create goal-scoring chances.
The struggles at U-19 and U-23 levels, where India repeatedly fails to qualify for continental championships, are even more concerning since performances at those levels are often indicators of senior team success.
This, despite there being some sort of a structure, no matter how flawed, in men’s football. The AIFF’s complete disregard for the women’s game for decades and then suddenly asking them to play against the world’s best underlines their confused approach.
And now, the AIFF wants to host the senior Asian Cup in 2027.
The reasons to host this tournament don’t seem clear. If it is to pent-up demand, then India does not need to host a tournament; packed stands in domestic competitions show there’s enough appetite for the game. If the hope is that it will ignite grassroots development, then there are examples that illustrate how poorly the top-down approach has fared.
Unlike the Patel-led administration, it will be important for new president Kalyan Chaubey to realise that hosting major events isn’t even a shortcut to success; it’s just an illusionary path.
There’s a lesson in this for the Olympic body as well: there are consequences of running even before learning to walk. For, the situation in many Olympic disciplines is as dire.
Since the 2000 Olympics, the country has not sent its athletes in almost half of the sports since the 2000 Olympics. At the Sydney Games, India competed in just 13 out of the 28 sports. In Tokyo, the country’s athletes qualified in 18 out of 33 sports, competing in only 69 out of the 339 medal events.
That has a direct impact on where a country finishes on the medals table.
Except for Mexico in 1968, a host country has won medals in double-digits in each edition of the Games and barring Canada in 1976, every host has at least one gold medal. Since the turn of the century, the least number of gold medals won by a host country – six, by Greece – is still more than India has won during the same period.
Indeed, one can expect a massive injection of funds, as is the trend for home-nation athletes, which can lead to more medals. But even then, India has a lot of catching up to do to vault into the top 15 on the medals table, where each host country has finished since 2000.
Right now, there seems to be no coherent strategy on the part of the administrators to tackle these issues. Instead, India is racing against time to save itself from the second IOC suspension in a decade.
It isn’t clear what India hopes to achieve by hosting the Olympics. In China’s case, author Mark Dreyer, in his book Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View on China’s Quest to be the Best, noted that sports were a ‘political priority’.
“Ever since Beijing was awarded the Games in 2001, sports became a top political priority, because the Olympics was a vehicle to achieve a singular political goal – presenting the face of a new, modernised China to the world. The government saw this opportunity and grasped it with both hands,” Dreyer wrote.
If India’s aim is purely sporting, then it should start by nurturing young talent, getting something as rudimentary as scouting and selections right before paraphrasing and posing the questions Tianjin Youth Magazine asked its readers in 1908:
* When will India be able to send a winning athlete to the Olympic contests?
* When will India be able to send a winning team to the Olympic contests?
The Olympics can wait.