India's latest engineering goal: create Olympians
Steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal is underwriting an ambitious push to put India on the map after decades of Olympic underachievement.
NEW DELHI and PATIALA, INDIA
All India hopes that Virdhawal Khade will not become a software engineer. On his broad swimmer's shoulders sit the country's desires to become something other than an Olympic also-ran.
Never has the nation of India won more than two medals in an Olympic Games – and it did that only once. In a country home to one-third of the world's poor, parents dream of children with steady jobs, not Olympic medals. But India is changing, and with the country's rising affluence, athletes such as Khade are finding that, for the first time, they have the support to chase their Olympic dreams.
"We have enormous potential, but we have not always tapped it properly," says Randhir Singh, secretary general of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA). "Our emphasis has not been on sports; our emphasis has been on water and roads. But economically, India is doing a lot better, and we have the surplus money now."
With the help of Lakshmi Mittal, an Indian billionaire desperate for his homeland to make its mark at the medal table, Khade has been given everything he needs – from training in Australia to treatment in South Africa. Former Olympians here say this is unprecedented, and it has given them hope that, at last, this country of more than 1 billion people might soon reverse its history of Olympic underachievement.
There is much work to be done. Since independence in 1947, India has won 12 Olympic medals in 14 Summer Games – three fewer than Belarus won in 2004 alone.
Sports not seen as a viable career
The problem, say some observers, is culturally ingrained. With the possible exception of cricket, sports have always been dismissed – not seen as a viable career choice.
"Our problem is Indian society just isn't interested in sport," says Prem Sharma, a boxing coach. "Parents will tell their children to study and become engineers and doctors and not to waste their time on sport."
In turn, would-be Olympians have often felt abandoned and anonymous. "If you are a sportsman, you have to be a class above the rest," says a national team coach who asked that his name be withheld because he was not authorized to speak with the media. "In India, he has not even been an equal."
Funding was limited and training facilities were scattered across the country, with athletes trained more for national competitions between states than Olympic-caliber events.
The Athens Games four years ago were typical: a single silver in shotgun double-trap shooting. In fact, the silver represented the best medal haul for India since the Moscow Games of 1980, when the field hockey team won gold.
ArcelorMittal CEO funds 2012 talent
But the performance prompted steel magnate Mittal to action. In an effort to pick up where the India's Olympic development had always faltered – the leap from promising talent to Olympic contender – he established the Mittal Champions Trust.
The goal is to "put India on the medals grid" in the 2012 London Games by identifying India's best young athletes and giving them the money to travel the world in search of the best competition and coaches.
Boxer Akhil Kumar says he owes the trust everything. After suffering a serious injury to his right hand, "my dreams were over," says the 2006 Commonwealth Games gold medalist. In the past, perhaps they would have been.
But the trust flew him to a specialist in South Africa and paid for two surgeries, as well as the rehabilitation that has followed. "The Mittal Champions Trust gave me new life," he says. "What Mittal does is beyond expectation."
Khade says simply: "We get whatever we want."
Former Olympic swimmer Hakimuddin Habibulla says this is a revolution for Indian sport. "I was always told I couldn't make a career out of swimming, so I had to study, and it was very difficult to combine both," says the 2000 Olympian.
"I couldn't afford to train abroad," he adds, so he became a software engineer. Today, Khade does not need to make that choice. When the date of his board exams recently clashed with the world championships, Khade went to the world championships. There, he qualified for the Beijing Olympics. Yet his real goal is to stay in the sport at least another four years and medal at the 2012 London Games.
"This is what was unimaginable to us even a couple of years in the past," says Mr. Habibulla, who has seen his national records eclipsed by Khade. "It has opened the eyes of many people as to what things are achievable if you have the support."
This includes the government of India, he says. "Funds like the Mittal Champions Trust create a positive pressure on the whole system," says Habibulla, who has left his job as a software engineer to become an agent for athletes, including Khade.
IOA secretary-general Singh agrees. "Everyone is waking up," he says. "The economic growth of India is changing the thinking."
New pipeline: 800,000 sport clubs
As evidence of the government's increased emphasis on sports, he points to the IOA's plans to establish 800,000 sports clubs in villages throughout India and to build a 150-acre national Olympic training center.
Until then, the Sports Authority of India's national training center in Patiala is an attempt to improve the conditions for elite Indian athletes in the interim. Within a converted palace of dark woods and crystal chandeliers, judo dojos and fencing pistes sit upon marble floors in what were once the bedrooms of the maharaja's 364 wives.
Habibulla, too, has seen positive signs, with the government more responsive to Khade's needs. "Things are heading in the right direction," he says.