India is putting its hat in the ring to host the 2036 Summer Olympics, an event it has never previously staged. Prime Minister Modi says India “will leave no stone unturned” to win the bid and “sport is not just about winning medals but also winning hearts.”
The last statement is perhaps a bit too simplistic and if India are to succeed in getting the bid, it needs to fuse what politicians announce with ground realities. For now, the formal can be fixed easily enough, the PM’s announcement needs to be backed up by a letter from the Indian Olympic Association.
Some misgivings however are more complex. Among key requirements of a host nation is the obvious, international achievements in sports across arenas and unfortunately the difference for India between a good show at the Asian Games and a respectable tally at the Olympics is not minor.
India’s record haul of 107 medals — its best — in the recently concluded Asian Games although heartwarming cannot be a barometer. A seven-medal haul including Neeraj Chopra’s lone gold at the Tokyo Olympics was the best India has ever done.
Stadiums without ramps
India is not a sporting nation, those who succeed do so despite a system — the protest by champion wrestlers on the street has fizzled out without justice — and its infrastructure.
The country’s big game experience involves hosting the 2010 Commonwealth Games which were mired in allegations of corruption and earlier, the 1982 Asian Games. Some of its fancy cricket stadiums lack adequate facilities, the plight of infrastructure in other sports, barring badminton — which found its own parallel system to succeed — then is not hard to imagine. Since 1992, every Olympic city has also simultaneously hosted the Paralympic Games. Our para-athletes speak of swimming pools without access and stadiums without ramps.
Staging an Olympics is no less than building a new village, in Paris next year 32 sports across various disciplines will be played out. If India succeeds, it may well bring a turnaround and force a conventional society to accept that there is nothing wrong in sports as a career.
The Olympic committee is very keen on its motto of sustainability, 95% of the venues in Paris are already in existence and it is believed that for the 2028 summer Olympics, Los Angeles — it will be a third time host — won the bid based on structures that are ready-made.
Host countries need to evaluate long term how the new infrastructure can be integrated into the local population once the games are over else giant buildings are wasted as an albatross around the neck.
Last mile connectivity
This is especially significant for India which will have to allocate and divert public funds to uplift sports facilities in the country into world-class training centres. Not just that, it will have to invest heavily in last mile connectivity, linking athletes to venues who will travel through chaotic traffic and populated streets.
Elevating lives of Indian athletes
What will give India confidence is the successful G-20 summit that it recently hosted. The food menu for the leaders though exotic was vegetarian.
Olympics on the other hand requires inclusiveness of thought and action, where nutrition needs to be as per the nutritional requirements of the athletes and not cultural sensibilities of majoritarian demands.
What comes together at the opening ceremony is the culmination of years of grime, dust and sacrifices behind the scenes. On the G-20 weekend, Delhi was shut down, and slums were hidden behind a green cloth wall. Olympics is a monthlong affair, not much can stay hidden or tucked away.
If India can go beyond the image obsession and win the bid, this could just be the push it needs to nurture talent, including at the grass roots as also elevate the lives of Indian athletes.
These games are transformative, whichever corner of the map they touch. In the 2024 games in Paris, 10,500 athletes are expected to compete from 206 National Olympic Committees.
The public announcement of intent is just the beginning, almost like a meet and greet at a parent-teacher meeting. The process of selection is long and ongoing, and 10 countries have expressed interest in hosting the 2036 games.
The final decision will only be taken after 2025, enough time to know whether this is just being parochial or if it is about the bigger good of the country.