In a country like India where infrastructure, education and health care are still pressing needs for most of the population, the budget for sports is limited. Facilities for sportsmen and women, good coaches, international quality equipment – these are all out of reach for even the most talented of Indians.
Despite a huge population of nearly 1.3 billion, India hasn’t achieved much success in the international sporting arena, with the notable exception of cricket. Most Olympic summer sports like athletics, swimming, gymnastics, basketball, cycling, and volleyball are completely ignored in India. As for winter sports – they remain completely undeveloped!
And yet, India has some tenacious, determined and gritty raw talent that defies all odds to fight its way to the top and surface on the international stage. Witness the Deepika Kumaris, Dipa Karmakars, Lalita Babars, and Dattu Baban Bhokanals who made it to the Rio Olympics after practising in the rural backyards of our country.
Many of India’s promising athletes face financial difficulties that threaten the realisation of their sporting ambitions at an early stage. This chronic lack of resources has undermined Indian performances at top events for a very long time, with the country’s athletes getting the backing of only a few private sector sponsors.
This year, however, it was heartening to see private companies taking baby steps to support competitive sports in the country (apart from cricket) and promoting individual athletes. For the 2016 Rio Olympics, as many as nine private sector companies signed up as sponsors for the Indian contingent, the country’s largest ever.
While India is still waiting for its first medal at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games with many of its star athletes having failed to finish on the podium, many have come agonisingly close to clinching medals, including Dipa Karmakar, whose outstanding performance in gymnastics has made her a role model for all Indian sportsmen and women.
Dipa’s Olympics story is all the more remarkable, given that she competed in her first gymnastics competition without shoes and in an ill-fitting costume. There are many Indian athletes like her whose careers have been marred by lack of basic equipment, apathetic sports officials, non-availability of indoor and outdoor arenas to practise in, government corruption, etc.
Lalita Babar was India’s Olympic qualifier in the 3000m Steeplechase event. The 26-year-old long-distance runner, for whom drought is a more common sight than water in the Mohi village of Maharashtra, has broken barriers and shifted disciplines to train for this sport but still has to buy running spikes on her own.
The government did not agree to pay for the shoes that cost over Rs. 10,000 per pair and last only one month. Moreover, they have to be ordered from abroad as Steeplechase specific spikes are not available in India. The much-needed help for the shoes finally came, but not from the government. Anglian Medal Hunt, a Delhi-based sports management company that nurtures young talent and prospective medal winners, has been paying for Lalita Babar’s shoes during her Olympic preparation.
O P Jaisha competed in some of the most gruelling and challenging track events at the Rio Olympics. Jaisha fought against unimaginable hardships to become a top-class athlete yet she had a difficult time finding sponsors.
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Things took a turn for the better when she was included in the JSW Sports Excellence Program (SEP), the flagship endeavour of JSW Sports, along with 11 other Rio-bound athletes. The athletes were then provided access to top-of-the-line athletic apparel, nutritional supplements, dedicated physiotherapists and sports scientists as a part of the Road to Rio SEP.
Soumyajit Ghosh, India’s top-ranked men’s paddler from Siliguri, trained for the Olympics in Sweden with a personal coach who charged Rs. 1 lakh per month. The payment was entirely managed by Ghosh and his parents.
Ghosh also worked for Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL) and played for a local league in Falkenberg to meet the expenses, but this was still not enough to pay his coaching fees. Help came only when his employer BPCL stepped in to pay for two foreign trips a year and provided the tickets for training at overseas venues, and TIBHAR (a table tennis equipment company) decided to sponsor his equipment.
The private sector’s backing for the Indian contingent this year deserves applause. Much of India’s sporting talent comes from underprivileged or middle class backgrounds. What private sponsorships bring to the table for these athletes is good training and equipment that can help them compete in the international arena. This can make a huge difference to the athletes’ preparation, as they can focus on their training and no longer run from pillar to post trying to arrange funds for their Olympic sojourn.
Among the companies sponsoring Indian athletes this year are Edelweiss Tokio Life Insurance, Amul, Tata Salt and Herbalife, etc. These companies have extended their support to lesser-known athletes who are representing India at the world’s largest sports extravaganza through life insurance covers, nutrition education, product and equipment packages, and promotion on social media.
When Edelweiss, the principal sponsor of the Indian contingent at Rio 2016, heard that 20-year-old sprinter Dutee Chand did not even have running shoes for the event, it decided to step in.
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With less than a month left for the Olympics, Edelweiss employees scoured Mumbai to find just the right pair of shoes for Chand, the first Indian woman to compete in the 100 metres event at the Olympics after almost 36 years.
Edelweiss Tokio Life Insurance has also offered a life insurance cover of Rs 1 crore for each of the athletes representing India at the Rio Olympics.
Herbalife International India, the official nutrition sponsor of the Indian Olympic contingent to Rio 2016, has provided personalised nutrition packages.
The Indian Olympics Association also roped in sporting goods company Li Ning as the apparel partner, Tata Salt as the nutrition partner and Amul as the dairy partner. Total sponsorships for the Indian contingent to the Rio Olympics added up to Rs 10 crore – that’s eight times the amount paid by Amul and Samsung, the only two team sponsors in the 2012 London Olympics.
Anju Bobby George, who represented India in Long Jump at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games, also reiterated how things have changed from her time as an Olympian. In an interview to Firstpost, she said,
“In our time we struggled a lot for getting funds, but now it is getting easy. Even in the last Olympics, there was private support but this time there is more support and it’s good because this way they can focus on training rather than running here and there for support and money. This will help athletes deliver their best.”
In an encouraging move, India Inc has entered the country’s sporting arena, and by filling in the gaps in funding and facilities for Olympic sports, is changing the way the nation plays. But has it extended enough help to ensure India reaps some rewards on the winners’ podium? That, for now, remains to be seen.