1. Reads
  2. Deep Dives

Rio Olympics: Never Again

Founder and CEO, Transfin.
Sep 9, 2017 4:30 AM 5 min read

Saving grace at the Rio Olympics

When the largest-ever contingent of 117 athletes (mostly) drew blanks at the Rio Olympics, India was again subdued at the world’s most important sporting arena. PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik’s incredible journey, from underdog to outlier was the saving grace. The former replayed her brilliance last month, locked in a 73-shot marathon against Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara, winning the rally but losing the match for silver at the World Badminton Championship in Glasgow. It is bizarre how one year has transpired between the Olympics and Sindhu’s last triumph, but we look up to the same narrow pool of talent while hoping for any International sporting glory. The said glory arrives rarely and mostly as an exception rather than the rule, which begs the question of what it takes?


The US tops the list of most medals won in the Olympics (summer and winter) with 2,802 awards to its credit, followed by Russia (1,753), Great Britain (873), France (824) and Germany (824). India’s total medal count to date stands at a lowly 28. The remainder BRICS, often exemplified as comparable nations in economic terms have performed much better. China’s rise is evident with 594 medals, Brazil is at 129 and South Africa at 86. In contrast, our sporting exploits weren’t lifted by the wave of our economic rise, illustrated by a medal tally barely budging even one century and 24 Olympics later.



With hardly seven months to go for the Commonwealth Games and less than a year to the Asian Games, it becomes pertinent to probe as to why a country with more than 1.3 bn citizens, 400 m of whom are of ages 15–35, fails to win at the highest level of sports.


What does it cost to train a world-class athlete and win an Olympic medal? As per a report published in The Guardian, the UK spent an average of $7 m per medal at Rio, amounting to a total spend of $450 m in preparation for the games. India in contrast invested $6 m on the Olympics. In total! By that logic, we managed to bag 2 medals for $4 m a piece less!


One must firstly recognise that financial support dictates success in competitive sport, a principle resonating most at the International level. No other action, however sincere and heartfelt will otherwise bear fruit. Also, undertaking this financial burden should not be the sole responsibility of the state. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) for instance receives no direct government funding. Its main source of revenue includes television broadcasting rights, private sponsorships, and philanthropic contributions in the form of major gifts and direct mail income. Its private contributors include multi-national companies such as Deloitte and domestic brands like Chobani. In addition, many US athletes depend on individual donations, with more than 100 being funded by crowdfunding websites e.g. Jeremy Taiwo, an American decathlete reportedly raised $18,331 in 2015 via GoFundMe.


In India however, besides the lack-lustre financial commitment from the government, private sponsorship is elusive. Even as investment in sports is gaining popularity with companies like Reliance Jio, Edelweiss and Amul funding the Indian Olympic Association, big money through sponsorships is limited to cricket. As per a CRISIL study, Indian companies in FY 16 spent only about INR78 cr ($12 m), amounting to c.1% of their total Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) spend, on sports development. Monetary support in the form of viability gap funding, tax breaks for sports investments, and favourable policies to promote Public-Private Partnerships both at centre and state level is key. Unless a coordinated master plan to boost private investment is conceived and implemented, below-par performance will continue to be the natural end-point.


World-class athletes have a short shelf life of five to eight years. It is essential to nurture them into future trainers and in the process continuously build a broad base of grass-root talent. A nation-wide programme to setup training centres would go a long way in building continuity for ex-players as well as to create a platform for high potential talent. A designated fund composed of public and private money can be created for this sole purpose with precisely defined sustainable investment guidelines. Ex-players should be able to seek funding allocations by presenting business and operational plans to an investment committee. Direct government involvement, if any, should be at an arms-length basis, primarily limited to setting overall quality and professional standards. High potential players should be scouted at an early age, with enrolment in the training centre granting favourable economics and prospects, lack of which is a major deterrent for Indians to consider sports as a viable career option. Existing academies such as that of 2001 All England Badminton Champion and PV Sindhu’s coach P Gopichand, which he built on his own personal efforts, can serve as a useful case-study to create a scalable financial and operational model.


The NITI Aayog in 2016 presented a 20-point Action Plan to achieve the target of 50 medals in the 2024 Summer Olympics. It highlighted the need to prioritise certain sports that have high winning potential and develop an outcome oriented action plan for each of these. India should play to its core strengths. For instance, states like Kerala have traditionally been proficient in sports like boat racing and martial arts, while Maharashtra is big in Mallakhamb. These provide a brownfield for the development of sports like canoeing, judo, taekwondo and gymnastics. India must focus on medal-intensive, individual driven sports like archery, swimming and wrestling, arenas where it already has an upper-hand. There are currently 16 swimming events on the Olympic program including freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly. Singles games like gymnastics and shooting have greater probability of wining than a team event like hockey.


As evident, the primary headwind is not limited to unidimensional issues like coaches or facilities, but lack of an overall framework and eco-system to identify, encourage, and nurture world-class athletes. At the very apex lies an absence of strategy, a distracted policy framework, both damaged further by poor implementation and financial support.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in the aftermath of 2016’s hand-wringing display, rightly created a special task force comprising former sportspersons and experts to come up with key recommendations to revamp the sports sector in a concentrated manner. The eight-member team submitted its final report in August this year. While the report elaborates on general goalposts, it is not really a policy document, deficient regarding a roadmap on the “how” and the “when”. The appointment of former shooter and silver medallist at Athens, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, as new Cabinet Minister of Youth and Sports over the weekend should hopefully fortify the apex with new found energy and empathy.