If five-year old kids were asked who Salman Khan was, and what the Olympic Games were, the result is depressingly easy to predict. The percentage of tots answering question 1 will easily outstrip those getting the sporting query right.
The comparison is not to belittle the sporting achievements of those participating in the Games, most of whom (being Indian) have got there in the face of overwhelming odds (unlike Salman who had his path to Bollywood greatness lubricated by being born into the fraternity).
But it just goes to show that as a country, we lack a sporting culture. And that’s where, ironically, Salman could make a difference.
The Indian Olympic Association’s choice of appointing the muscular Bollywood hero has met with widespread criticism, with the first salvo being fired by Rio qualifier and Olympic bronze medal winning wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt. Sprint great Milkha Singh quickly followed suit.
Yes, Dutt, Milkha and shooter Abhinav Bindra are great ambassadors of the game. The fact, however, remains that people who like these stars would anyway watch or take interest in the Olympics. But by bringing in a Bollywood star, the IOA will be able to catch the eyeballs of the section that otherwise is not interested in Olympic sports.
Why did we choose Amitabh Bachchan as brand ambassador to make people aware of the power of do-boond polio drops? We could have chosen a great doctor. Instead of actor Aamir Khan promoting the Incredible India campaign, should it have been given to a historian who knew India’s diversity and culture better?
Let’s accept that Bollywood is the most popular choice to create buzz around other campaigns or events. The result of the polio campaign and Incredible India are incontrovertible proof.
Salman coming into the picture could also draw corporate sponsorships for less-fancied sports. There is no harm if some extra money flows to a sporting body low on cash and spectator interest.
We need not look too far to understand the draw of Bollywood stars in sports. We can learn from the IPL. Bollywood starpower was used by franchise owners to promote a game which is as popular as Indian cinema. So what is the harm in using them to promote other games?
There are charges against Salman that by associating with IOA and the Olympics in general, he is only promoting his forthcoming film Sultan, in which he has played the role of a wrestler. So what?
Salman as an actor charges crores for promoting any event. Here, he is doing it for free.
Some say the hit-and-run court case against Salman underlines negative sentiment against the star. Those who say this clearly haven’t been to a theatre showing a Salman movie (vacuous as many of his offerings are).
Bollywood has been good at supporting sports that are well behind cricket in the popularity stakes. Bollywood stars own hockey and wrestling teams. Yesteryear hero Dharmendra was the first to buy a team during when the Pro-Wrestling League was announced and John Abraham is co-owner of Hockey League team Delhi Waveriders.
Amitabh Bachchan and son Abhishek can easily compete with cheerleaders in raising the confidence of their Kabaddi teams.
And Bollywood has done more than its share in celebrating sporting success. In the 1982 Asian Games, Mir Ranjan Negi was the goalkeeper for the India national field hockey team when it was pulverised 7-1 in the final by Pakistan. Negi was falsely accused in some quarters of having deliberately conceded those goals. He returned as a goalkeeping coach for the 1998 Asian Games in which India won gold. This dramatic comeback was highlighted in Bollywood movie Chak De India years later.
Milkha Singh is undoubtedly a legend but not many knew about his journey before Bhag Milkha Bhag.
If Salman can sell somewhat brainless entertainers like Dabang, Ready and Ek Tha Tiger, creating a buzz around the Olympics is much easier a task. And the controversy of his appointment has done half his job for him already.