International sporting events are meant to serve as advertisements for their host countries. The recently-concluded soccer World Cup demonstrated that no matter what we may have read, South Africa was well-organised enough to host a global tournament with style and élan. The last Olympics served as China’s coming-out party to the world in much the same way as the 1964 Olympics served notice that Japan was ready to became an international player.
I think we can all agree that there is little hope that the Commonwealth Games will be a global advertisement for India. Forget about replicating the success of the South African World Cup or the Chinese Olympics, it seems likely that these Games will not even approach the success of the 1982 Asiad.
I am enough of an optimist to believe that in true Indian fashion we will manage to ride over all the obstacles at the last minute and that the Games will not be the fiasco that some writers are predicting. But I do believe that the mess we find ourselves in raises certain long-term questions which deserve answers.
- I have no desire to sit in judgement over Suresh Kalmadi who loudly protested his innocence in an interview to HT on Thursday but even a four-year-old can tell that the Games reek of corruption and dishonesty.
The sheer weight of the charges — kickbacks, needless commissions to mysterious off-shore companies, forged letters, unexplained payments to non-existent London firms, inflated purchase figures, etc. — is so great that no denials will seem convincing. Clearly a lot of people have got very rich out of these Games.
Now that the skeletons are tumbling out, the organisers of the Games are blackmailing us. We may be crooks, they say, but if you act against us then this could endanger the Games which are only a few weeks away. So like it or not, you are stuck with us.
The problem is that they may be right. Any action against the crooks may have to wait till the Games are over. The racketeers are hoping that, in classic Indian style, if the Games go off relatively well, we will forget about these charges.
Here too, they may be right. The fact that people who are famed for their corruption have been put in charge of organising the Games shows how little accountability there is in the Indian system. No matter how much of a sleazeball you are regarded as, you can always manipulate your way to the top of the system.
So, here’s my question: why does the Indian system allow crooks to get so far? Why does it take the media to expose the level of rank dishonesty?
- The Commonwealth Games mess is a symptom of many deeper malaises. One of them is the sickness that afflicts Indian sport. Many of the people who have been responsible for this mess — across sports federations — are the same people who have been running Indian sport for decades.
Because the Commonwealth Games are so high-profile, we have finally been forced to pay attention to what they are really up to. And everything we have learnt over the last four weeks confirms what sportsmen and women have been saying for decades: Indian sport is run by crooks who have no interest in sport but care only about their own wallets.
It is significant that in all the discussions about the Games the players have hardly been mentioned. We now treat it as a given that despite being the most populous country in the Commonwealth, we will not emerge at the top of the medals tally. The story of Indian sport (outside of cricket) is a story of permanent third-ratedness interrupted by brief spells of second-ratedness.
So, here’s my second question: why don’t we look beyond these Games and ensure that the crooks who have brought Indian sport to this sorry pass are thrown out of sports organisations forever?
- It is convenient to treat Suresh Kalmadi as the source of all that is wrong with the Games — and certainly he has a lot to answer for.
But the truth is that it isn’t just the Games organisers who have failed. The leaking infrastructure, the collapsing roads, the delayed projects, the incomplete Games village, etc. have little to do with the Organising Committee.
They are entirely the fault of the government.
The Sports Authority of India, the Delhi Development Authority (DDA, under the Urban Development Ministry), the New Delhi Municipal Committee (NDMC) and the state government have all failed to meet their targets or to complete projects to international standards.
What’s worse is that many of the cases that the Central Vigilance Commission is looking at relate to corruption within government bodies, not just the Organising Committee of the Games.
Yet, have you heard one central minister (I exclude the Delhi Chief Minister because she has been honest and upfront) accepting responsibility for the screw-ups or promising action against errant and dishonest officials?
They are all thrilled that Kalmadi is in the line of fire because it gets them off the hook. And sadly, we are content to let them get away with it.
So, here’s my third question: why doesn’t the government of India accept that it shares responsibility for the disaster? The government has failed to impose accountability on the organising committee; the sports ministry is a joke which should be renamed the ‘talk ministry’; and government departments have failed to deliver the infrastructure on schedule.
- And finally, the big question. The Games will cost upwards of R 35,000 crore. Spend that money on improving the road traffic systems of Bombay and Delhi and you would reduce jams and congestion — a benefit the citizens of both cities would value more than the stadiums that have been built in the capital. Spend that money of developing an infrastructure for Indian sport at the mass level and you would give talented sports people a means of breaking through.
I use these two examples — rather than the hundreds of schools and hospitals you could build with this money — because the two arguments used to justify this expenditure are that
a) Delhi will get civic improvements and b) that Indian sport will benefit. Both are weak and unconvincing justifications.
In fact, there is only one reason for hosting an international sporting event: to show off your country to the world.
So, here’s my final question: given that we have no desire to show Suresh Kalmadi off to the world; given that the Commonwealth Games are not a global event on par with say, the Olympics or the soccer World Cup; and given that sport is not the strongest selling point in the India story; should we be wasting so much money and diverting funds meant for Dalits and other poor people on such pointless spectacles?
There are things that India does well. And we should show them off. But organising a sporting tournament is not one of them.
The views expressed by the author are personal