An Olympian Desi fiasco?

Monday, 4 October 2010 23:27 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Systemic weaknesses of a populist liberal democratic emerging economy?

New Delhi was in crisis at the end of September 2010.

Over time repeated news stories highlighting the lack of preparation and lost deadlines on Commonwealth Games facilities were ignored by the Indian politicians and sports Babus on the hope and the prayer that India would muddle through as per usual!

The Oxford Advanced Learners dictionary tells us that a fiasco is something which does not succeed, often in a way that causes embarrassment. Push came to shove and moved to crunch in short order when a number of ‘white’ Commonwealth country sports organisations expressed misgivings on the status of the facilities in the Athlete’s Village, and delayed their arrival (New Zealand, Scotland and Wales).

The Empire strikes back

The Chairman of the Australian Olympic Committee said that Delhi should never have been awarded the Games and questioned the capacity of the Commonwealth Games Federation to monitor progress. One wag commented that this was a case of ‘the Empire strikes back,’ six decades and three years after the Mahatma’s ‘Quit India’ campaign; it was a case of ‘Quit the Delhi CWG!’

Renowned columnist M.J. Akbar wrote that “the Empire never recovered from India quitting in 1947; the current heirs to the Mahatma and Pandit Nehru are just completing the job of Empire demolition!” He also labelled the corruption in the construction and procurement “a loot of the common wealth, in the name of the Commonwealth!” (Former British colonies constitute the Commonwealth of Nations – at one time it was called the British Commonwealth – no longer.)

Jamaica also made noises and champion sprinter Usain Bolt withdrew from the competition. Australian discus champion Samuels and swimmer Stephanie Rice, English triple jump champion Idowu, cyclist Chris Hoy, tennis star Andy Murray and South African running phenomenon Semanya also declined to participate, adding to the top performers who have pulled out. They gave injury or scheduling problems as reasons.

Queen Elizabeth II, patron of the Commonwealth, is missing a CWG for the first time in her long reign. There was a brief hiatus as to whether the Queen’s Representative, the Prince of Wales or the President of India, should declare the Games open; the Royal descendant of Victoria, Empress of India, seems to have won the day.


A Taiwanese TV crew was shot up by a pistol-wielding motorcycle pillion rider near Delhi’s famous tourist attraction, the Jumma Masjid in Chandi Chowk, Old Delhi, to give a reality check to various threats being made by terrorist groups against the CWG. These fears are further compounded by the pending Allahabad High Court judgment on the Ayodhya land dispute, on whether the site belongs to the Hindus or Islamists, with the potential for religious unrest whichever way the Court decides, by the ongoing Maoist revolt in the BIMAROU corridor (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh) and the Azadi related civil unrest in Kashmir, resulting in many civilian deaths.

The collapse of a foot bridge connecting the main stadium) the Indian Army engineers provided a substitute Bailey bridge – originally designed by a British Army Engineer – in short order) and the collapse of a part of the ceiling of the leaky wresting venue added to the woes.

After the Indian team moved into the Village, an Indian boxer’s bed collapsed once he lay down. A South African athlete found a cobra in her room. The Indian shooters were stranded at Delhi’s spanking new international airport for five hours. Lurid videos of filthy toilets, pools of stagnant water and dog paw marks across a bed sheet also caused concern. Red betel (pan) spittle stains were shown on the walls.


Comments were made by an inspection team about labourers urinating and defecating in the Games Village’s public areas. May be responding to last comment, a spokesman for the organising committee of the Games was shown on TV explaining that what is acceptable in one culture and society may be unacceptable in another; he specifically referred to cleanliness, sanitation and hygiene. The poor guy got a thorough hammering in the press.

In this context, readers would recall my comment in this column published on 23 March entitled ‘In the Footsteps of Prince Siddhartha of the Shakya Clan’ – on Mayawathi, Chief Minister of UP, and the hygiene situation in UP: “Her face glowers down at you from billboards in every nook and corner of the state… beneath which her citizens perform their daily ablutions in the open air due to lack basic sanitary facilities.”

Further, unusually heavy monsoon rains caused the Yamuna River, which flows through Delhi to break its banks and cause extensive flooding creating fears of a dengue mosquito epidemic.

Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh summoned responsible ministers to his residence and gave them a pep talk. Ticket sales have been low, cost estimates have been overrun by large margins and allegations of corruption and sub standard material being used in construction have been hitting the headlines. The original estimate US$ 407 million; the estimated final bill US$ 67.5 billion!

Former Olympic sprinter and sports commentator Michael Johnson has chimed in with the comment that the timing of the Delhi CWG was all wrong, that this was the time when most athletes were taking their annual break, and normally this event should take place between April and August. Still, the Lt. Governor of Delhi says: “We are confident that the Games will be outstanding.”

Chinese example

Consider and contrast the case of China and the Beijing Olympics 2008. The Chinese facilities were hailed as world class; the Olympics were hailed as the best ever. China won a hundred medals in 25 different sports – 51 Gold, 21 Silver and 28 Bronze. The cost of preparing China’s athletes for Beijing 2008 was close to US$ 586 million. That would make it more than $11 million spent for every gold, or $5.86 million for every medal.

China hired the best professional coaches for their athletes, no matter what the cost. There were as many as 38 foreign coaches. Igor Gringko, the Russian rowing coach, who was paid US$ 90,000 a year said, “Coaches like me help them to win gold medals, or we are fired.” Forty-four days before the Olympics, a German kayaking coach was.

China also spent lavishly on infrastructure; for example, it pumped in $ 291 million into its high altitude training base in Duoba and put in an extra $ 10 million behind the canoe/rowing facility. The Birds Nest and the Water Cube were sights to wonder at, even over television.

For China, the 2008 Summer Olympics was a crowning moment that confirmed Beijing’s place as a 21st century global capital. India intended to pull a similar feat with the 2010 CWG, hoping that Delhi would be in contention thereafter to host the 2020 or 2024 Summer Olympics. India would shed its third world label and join the big league. We have to see how India will perform at the CWG. Their sports moguls’ predictions are 200 medals of all types, gold/silver/ bronze.

Some commentators drew the distinction between the Delhi CGW and the Beijing Olympics as a manifestation of the divergence between China’s command autocratic Statism (described as corrupt, dictatorial and competent) and India’s vibrant open liberal Democracy (described as corrupt, arrogant and incompetent).

Once the Communist Party China decided to host the Olympics, the Middle Kingdom implemented, there were no two words about it, no dissenting views were tolerated, no public discussion on justification, corruption, cost overruns, etc., was tolerated; it was all secretive and single-mindedly target-oriented.

In Bharat, by contrast, the former BJP Government canvassed and got the CGW to Delhi. When the BJP (India Shining was their election slogan, which the voters rejected) was defeated, the new Congress (India Rising) Sports Minister (Mani Shanker Aiyer IFS Retd.) was opposed to the Games and after he was removed two years ago, has gone on record publicly hoping that the Games would fail!

(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)

An Olympian  Desi fiasco?

Every rumour monger, oppositionist and pseudo journalist at the bar or poolside of that most venerable watering hole, the Indian International Centre, New Delhi, has his own story of massive corruption, land acquisition delays, substandard goods, supplies and construction disasters related to the Games. (Recall – West Indian Author V.S. Naipaul’s famous book on India, ‘A Million Mutinies Now’.)

The Central Vigilance Commission has found that concrete used at some locations is sub standard. There have been allegations of mass over billing, including for toilet paper rolls! These were given wide publicity in the Indian free press. The international media picked up the story. And the rest is history! This is why autocrats in Beijing are contemptuous of India for what they think is its messy, indecisive democracy.

The crisis of the Delhi CWG is caused by the very same factors that foreign investors level at India in particular and us South Asians in general, in comparison with China, as a global investment destination.

Money, management and commitment

At the Beijing Olympics the most surprising performance was Britain’s. The British team returned home burdened with gold bullion – 19 Gold, 13 Silver and 15 Bronze, coming fourth overall with 47 medals, following the USA placed second and the Russian Federation placed third, defeating heavy hitters such as Australia, South Korea and Japan. Lord Moynihan, Chairman of the British Olympic Association attributed the success to money, management and commitment.

“John Major deserves a gold medal for providing lottery funding.” (Almost all British medal winners were on a National Lottery stipend.) “Every pound received was totally directed, money alone does not deliver medals, and it is entirely about how it is spent.

Lord Moynihan also praised the political commitment: “Across parties, sport is considered a hugely influential force, touching every area of commitment from health and education to international relations. Government has bought into it, opposition has bought into it.” This did not happen in India, until the last possible penultimate moment.

“British sport has so often been characterised by one year reviews, then an upheaval, then a review, new faces, new systems. You have to have continuity. You can’t expect a company to bring in new management every year and do well. There’s no difference, there has to be a professional, business like mindset.” This is reinforced by the debacle in Delhi.

India had a few successes at the Olympics at Beijing; one Gold, two Bronze, and the winners spoke out. Abhinav Bindra who clinched the Gold in Men’s 10-metre air rifle event gave India a template for performing well at the Delhi CWG. He said: “Indian sports needs CEOs with targets. Our culture of honorary functionaries removes all sense of responsibility while imparting authority to control the future of thousands who sweat everyday across the inadequate training facilities which dot India.”

Six-point plan

Bindra has put forward a six-point plan for Changing the Face of Indian Sports:

Promote sports in schools. Talent is nurtured there.

Improve infrastructure. India has only 20 synthetic surfaces for hockey; Australia has 350, Holland 400!

Administration needs professionals. The truth is that politicians heading sports bodies have abysmally failed to deliver. They should make way for professionals. Professionalising sports bodies is a pre-condition to excellence in any sport.

Training for coaches. We need to spend on specialists who can train our coaches and physiotherapists.

Increase budget allocation. India’s spots budget for the year 2005-06 was Rs. 292 crore. That was just 0.06% of the national budget. Australia spends roughly four times more with a population 60 times less.

Corporate support. There is a need for corporate groups to seriously encourage sports at the grassroots level, not only provide rewards post performance. How about top business houses getting together to adopt an Olympic sport each?

Almost none of Bindra’s suggestions were taken seriously. The honorary functionaries and politicians running India’s national sports associations are still in office. Most of the allegations of lethargy, inefficiency and corruption in relation to the CWG are against them.

Once the white Commonwealth countries threatened a boycott, the Congress political bosses and senior Babus in Delhi got all fired up and moved with Himalayan force and tsunami-like vehemence. India’s top bureaucrat, the Cabinet Secretary, was put in overall executive charge, a suave minister, not the Minister of Sports, was appointed as coordinator, who made many soothing noises.

Wedding analogy

Cynical Delhi-ites draw an analogy with a traditional Indian wedding, in which amidst the chaos and confusion, at the last moment everything comes together and everyone has a very enjoyable time. In fact the Indian Foreign Minister referred to the monsoon wedding analogy and drew a sharp retort from the Commonwealth Games Federation spokesperson for the insensitivity of his comment.

A family wedding, with forgiving friends and relations in attendance, fuelled by delicious Desi food and most times also fired up by humongous amounts of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, is a different kettle of fish to a world class sports competition!

Sankarshan Thakur, the roving editor of the Telegraph newspaper, said that the Indians were very good at putting a last minute shine on a bad preparatory effort! The CWG opening ceremony was on 3 October. Dancers were training hard in the run up for the opening event to Bollywood Oscar Winner A.R. Rahman’s musical score, created to rival Shakira’s Waka Waka of South African World Cup Football fame.

Aggressive, trained Gray Langur monkeys were brought in from neighbouring Rajasthan, to scare away the Rhesus Macaque monkeys, which are a menace in Delhi, from the CWG sites. Snake charmers are on standby to deal with cobras. Will the resilient, much-maligned Indian democracy show its colours? We would have watched the opening on our TV screens.

On India’s medal tally? The jury is still out. South Asia certainly hopes for success and wishes the CWG 2010 all the best.

Sri Lanka is co host with India and a number of South Asian countries for the 2011 Cricket World Cup. There are many lessons for us to be drawn from the Delhi CWG experience. The Indian wedding analogy is just not the way to go! The world will be watching and judging. South Asia’s reputation and performance as an investment destination is on the line.

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