The day RVS Rathore stood with a laurel wreath on his forehead and silver round his neck on that historic day at Athens in 2004, it was the dawn of an era in India sport. However inert the system, it started recognising that India - with careful grooming of its athletes - could produce world-beaters. That defining moment also helped India to get rid of, to an extent, the global stigma that a nation of more than a billion could not produce Olympic champions.
If Rathore's silver brought new-found confidence among youngsters that they too could do it, four years later, at Beijing, Abhinav Bindra, Vijender Singh and Sushil Kumar were there to show the world that the country had taken a giant leap in the intervening years. The burgeoning Commonwealth Games and record-breaking Guangzhou Asian Games medals tally was a perfect example of the determination of the stakeholders - athletes, government and the various sports foundations - to ensure that India was well and truly on course to becoming a sporting power, if not a superpower.
Of course, there were a few ventures in the 80s & 90s from 'Good Samaritans', who, pained by India's dismal performance in multi-discipline events, did their bit. But, the system never really appreciated their overtures and foundations like the Britannia Amritraj Trust and Hinduja Academy lost initiative despite having deep pockets.
Then, there was a lull. And it took a silver from Rathore to ignite the passion of the business houses, to not only take care of their bottom-line, but also the health of India's sporting culture. The relationship is no longer at a nascent stage; it is blossoming. If the growing number of foundations is an indication, then spring is round the corner.
Bindra and Ronjan Sodhi, two of the prized possessions of Mittal Champions Trust (MCT), have brought more glory to the country that an entire army of Indian athletes put together. And, it has come after they got associated with the Trust. No longer, did they have to bother about their training schedules, support staff, etc. It was there at their beck and call. Besides the two main Olympic medal prospects, MCT also has 13 more stars competing at the London Games.
Come to think of it, the concept to start the venture came into being when one day Lakshmi Niwas Mittal, chairman of the world's largest steel-making company, was watching Mahesh Bhupathi and Manisha Malhotra play at the Wimbledon. It was there that he endorsed Malhotra's brainchild, once the concept was revealed to him. Today, MCT has a $10million corpus and is the largest private spender in India, pumping in a whopping Rs. 8 crore this year on the Olympic team's preparations.
Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), another major player in the country, was the brainchild of multiple world baize sport champion Geet Sethi, and the first all-England champion, Prakash Padukone. After seeing the hideous facet of bureaucratic control, the duo wanted the future generations to go out with an uncluttered mind and let it rip. On the way, they got on board Leander Paes, who was more than willing to help and the charisma of the tennis ace - who is one of the OGQ directors - helped the foundation garner a whopping Rs. 90 lakh in a couple of hours during a corporate event. People from other walks of life too, like Niraj Bajaj, a four-time national TT champion and Harvard Business School alumnus, joined OGQ and today he is the pioneering spirit behind the foundation, bringing in the moolah.
Dreaded red tape
While government funding has never been a problem - in fact, despite the country's limitations, the sports ministry threw open its coffers for training during the CWG (Rs. 700cr) and London Olympics (Rs. 250-plus crore) - but what athletes dread is red tape. Even today, despite the noble intentions, the government is not seen as a 'serious partner', largely because of bureaucratic control, rough handling of athletes and general mistrust. MCT, perhaps, was the first to recognise this and start working in a professional manner. Truth to tell, they had 'nerves of steel' and cast iron determination.
Manisha Malhotra, the 36-year-old former tennis player and winner of silver at the 2002 Busan Asian Games, comes across as a tech-savvy person abreast with developments taking place in the sports world. The chief administrator at MCT reels off names of athletes, which only a person who enjoys a personal rapport can. "The prime objective was to give India the ability to do well at the Olympics. We wanted to create and help all athletes who had talent to be able to win an Olympic medal," says Malhotra. Today, the number of athletes has gone up to 33, with 15 of them going to the Olympics. The essence is to provide the right assistance at the right time and this is where, thanks to the overflowing coffers, there is no hitch. "The Trust gives the athletes anything they need. That includes coaches, physios, fitness trainers, mental trainers, sports medicine, doctors, training centres etc," she says.
Here to stay
When Bindra was fighting a debilitating back problem after his 2006 World Championship triumph in Zagreb, MCT was at hand to take care of his medical and physiological requirements; when he wanted advanced training in Germany, the Trust opened its coffers, supplementing the government's efforts, to give the best to the star shooter. "The athlete receives anything he needs to achieve excellence in his sport. With each one of them having different needs, we ensure the facilities are tailor-made," she says. That's not all. MCT is here for a long haul to ensure India emerges as a sporting powerhouse. "We plan to carry on as long as we are making a difference. The aim is to expand into different sports that don't necessarily have the same platforms available," she says.
Former India hockey star and OGQ CEO, Viren Rasquinha, too says that his foundation is only supplementing the government's efforts. "The government is the prime source of support for the athletes. We can't raise huge funds, but our mission is to help Indian athletes travel that final mile that helps them compete against the world's best," says Rasquinha.
"The key with initiatives like ours is credibility, where corporates are willing to fund us because of transparency in utilising funds, accountability with sportspersons, etc. Our long-term planning goes until the 2020 Olympics and though our budget for 2011-12 was Rs. 3 crore, we expect more support in the future. With support from the government and private bodies like OGQ and Mittal Trust, it will have a cumulative effect," he feels.
One of the biggest players in Indian sport, Sahara India, has in the past decade set the benchmark so high that emulating it would be next to impossible. While a sizeable chunk goes into cricket, Rs. 25 crore per year for Olympic disciplines such as boxing, wrestling, shooting, archery, hockey, volleyball, tennis and athletics has given a huge fillip to these sports.
Sahara came in at a time when private sponsorship in sport was almost non-existent. Today, they boast of 101 sportspersons, with 32 of them, including the men's hockey team, competing in London. "I believe that sports represents the most spirited, healthy and energetic facet of society and hence it should be promoted in every possible way," says chairman of Sahara India, Subrata Roy Sahara.
"Beyond cricket, other sports don't get much support in India and this has retarded the growth of Olympic disciplines. Three years back, we initiated support for a range of sports streams by adopting them and contributing to their preparation for the Olympics," he says.
It was a coffee-table conversation between friends, which became 'serious' and they ended up discussing ways to improving sports. Renowned chess player Abhijeet Kunte's analytical mind saw him and his friends plan a small academy for Pune-based athletes. By the time Lakshya Sports came into existence, it had a pan-India presence. "It was a humble start, but the binding factor was that we were sports-loving people," says Kunte. "We realised that sportspersons are the most needy, not only money-wise but on the allied services front too …getting good physios, mental trainers at the right time was tough for them.
"We started with badminton and now have tennis, chess, cricket, boxing and shooting as the sports we support. "While the face of our foundation are the three badminton stars - Ashwini Ponnappa, Jwala Gutta and V Diju - we have this young Olympic shooting aspirant, Rahi Sarnobat, who too could do the country proud in London," says Kunte. "It was bad luck that rifleman Hari Om had to surrender his Olympic quota, otherwise we would have had two shooters in London." It's no co-incidence that India's top shooter Gagan Narang trains at the shooting academy run by Lakshya.
With inputs from Sharad Deep and N Ananthanarayanan