Olympics 2028: India’s Athletes Ignored for Financial Lure
Cricket’s Olympic reentry and India’s hosting bid come at the expense of true Olympians
While euphoria reigned about cricket’s inclusion as a sport at the Olympics summer games in Los Angeles 2028, with the hefty hand of the Indian government at play, and given what the athletes have had to endure, and more recently at the Hangzhou Asian Games in China, why aren’t Indian athletes at the front and centre of the upcoming mega event, and the government’s hosting bid?
There is an advertisement on television, ironically while the ICC Cricket World Cup is on, which depicts the plight of current Indian athletes, who often have to face hurdles just to make it to the competition, let alone make the quota, such as simply not having the infrastructure or facilities to support their ambitions.
And much like the story of every Indian athlete, whose plight and struggles come to light only when they bring medals home, a girl is supported by her father who created the playing field in their own backyard, digging into his own pockets to realize a non-cricket dream.
Besides Neeraj Chopra, Anny Rani, Parul Choudary and Lovlina Borgohain also did India proud at the Asian Games this year, with most of India’s gold medals coming from shooting alone. Yet the sport is also facing a possibility of the axe in terms of quota as a sports discipline. Did the Olympics committee want to talk about it? No, they talked up Virat Kohli’s followers on social media! The discourse pretty much explained it all.
Niccolo Campriani, director of the LA28 local organizing committee stated the obvious. “My friend here Virat Kohli is the third most followed athlete in the world with 340 million followers on social media. That is more than Le Bron James, Tom Brady and Tiger Woods combined,” going on to add that cricket inclusion, “is the ultimate win-win-win for the LA28, the IOC and cricket community, as cricket will be showcased on a global stage to grow beyond the traditional cricket countries.”
“Of course, it’s the Olympics!” was ICC chairman Greg Barclay’s response to whether top cricketers would show up for the mega event, given the BCCI did not feel it worth their time to compel the top Indian cricketers to compete at the Asian Games, where also cricket made a return.
Now with cricket a part of the Olympics plan, it raises the bar on the ceiling of no more than 10,500 athletes at the Olympics village. So why the rule bend, and why now the willingness to take the Olympics out of the usual venues? Why when cricket, unlike the Indian athletes, won’t even compromise as it hasn’t for years?
While it is commendable that cricket will return to the Olympics after 128 years, it would have been even more commendable if worthy athletes, like India’s latest Olympic gold medallist Neeraj Chopra, had been made ambassadors for the Olympics session held in Mumbai for the first time in 40 years.
Instead, someone like Deepika Padukone and event organizer and joint sponsor Nita Ambani hogged the limelight, suspicious not only for the venue of the hosting but the timing of it, around the ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup 2023 in India. Was it any surprise that cricket, which was shortlisted for inclusion, finally made the cut?
The picture seems horribly wrong when one puts medals tally in perspective, and evidence of the fact that the Olympics, like almost anything else, is a matter of commercial ventures. Worse, it revealed the Narenda Modi led Indian government’s surreptitious plans to host the Olympics while making cricket, not the athletes who have made India proud, at the centre of that bid.
For those making the case that India needs cricket at the Olympics to boost its gold medal tally, equally important questions must be asked.
Take the recently concluded Asian Games 2023 in Hangzhou, for instance.
How many medals did the Indian athletes win? 107, which is a record by the way, as were the 28 golds won by the 655 athlete-strong contingent. The last impressive haul for India was 70 medals including 16 golds. So, that is success miles beyond historical expectations.
India’s tally at these Asian Games, with 28 gold, 38 silver, 41 bronze medals meant it became only the fourth country after China, Japan and South Korea to win more than a 100 medals at a single Asian Games.
How many gold medals did cricket win at the Asian Games? Two, though some will say that was 2 out of 2. Agreed, but how did they win it? The women’s team beat Sri Lanka, and one could argue the women need as many matches as they can get. The men’s team – a second string eleven since the BCCI did not think the Asian Games important enough to interrupt the men’s World Cup preparations – did not even have to sweat the final. They beat Afghanistan without a ball being bowled on the basis of their higher ranking.
How many gold medals has India won at the Olympics? Two since 1980. How many medals are up for grabs in cricket at the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028? Two. And how many cricket teams can compete for the medals? Six, including the hosts, the USA in this case, whose merit is questionable but who will participate because of the direct inclusion of the host team. How fair is that? And is this how cricket hopes that medals will be decided?
The seeming unfairness of the scenario could not be made clearer than by the fact the BCCI could not be bothered to send their first playing eleven to the event in Hangzhou, where the likes of Neeraj and others had to face not only dubious technology that nearly denied them potential records, but the possibility of a charge of being sabotaged by the Chinese organizers as was alluded to by Anju Bobby George.
When for decades debate has raged about who needs whom more when it comes to the tensile relationship between cricket and the Olympics, it seems money has won out.
Why cricket and why now? Why did the BCCI, with the ICC following suit, suddenly drop their original adamant stance that cricket did not need the Olympics, and that there was no interest in joining forces with the Indian Olympics Committee or subjecting their cricketers to the world drug-testing norms, a subject of contention? After the controversy over hosting the Commonwealth Games, what’s the bigger motive?
It seems a mutual bonhomie when it comes to financial gains won the day over the athletes. Unfortunately the present Indian government has only exacerbated the perception that the likes of Prime Minister Modi and sports minister Anurag Thakur were happy to fly the Indian tricolour proudly only when these Indian athletes, with next to no help, did India proud with medals, and are nowhere to be seen when it comes to resolving deep-seated and unsettling issues as was the case with the Indian wrestlers.
The Olympics made no bones about why cricket was on their agenda. Looking to deepen their base and their pockets, as the reference to Virat Kohli’s following suggested, was an influencer game the Olympics was more interested in.
As was wisely pointed out, however, cricket has no sway in 50 percent of the nations participating at the Olympics, and to have any credibility it will have to up its ante to at least 75 percent. This was a matter pointed out by Tidjane Thiam, the IOC member from the Ivory Coast – and one of the voices lost in the din of the promise of significant financial accruals.
Despite the fizz, the path to qualification is still unclear and will only be decided after the Paris Olympics. That Twenty20 is now being recognized as cricket’s best option for an Olympics medal seems driven more by commercial interests than genuine validation. By the latter reckoning Test cricket would have had no match.
The Olympics wants to get into India’s deep pockets and influence when it comes to the country’s relationship with cricket. Cricket meanwhile is also looking to use the Olympics to reach markets where it is mostly a game of expats, and to exploit the sentiment of the Indian diaspora, something Modi himself plays to the hilt.
Is it any surprise therefore that in this political game of legacy warfare, cricket suddenly becomes a big picture, under a BCCI with its knots deep into the political lineage that starts and ends with Amit Shah and his son Jay Shah?
Shah, speaking as the BCCI secretary, stated, “The inclusion of cricket in the Olympics is set to open new frontiers for the sport, providing unparalleled exposure in untapped global markets. Moreover, we anticipate that this decision will yield significant financial dividends and have a profound positive impact on our sport’s ecosystem.”
It is quite obvious why he would choose this moment in time to push cricket and with the recently reconstructed stadium in Motera renamed the Narendra Modi Stadium – with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s name now relegated to the sports complex alone – already being talked about as a potential venue for the Olympics as well with India’s hosting bid aspirations for 2036.
Who will be responsible for the potential financial windfall and how it is disbursed across sports development in India? It is anyone’s guess.
There are other worrying signs, and discussions that might also have held great merit when it comes to the likes of boxing and hockey and weight-lifting where there is concern that some of these disciplines might either be scrapped or their quotas limited.
Shouldn’t a greater pitch have been made for these sports disciplines to occupy legitimacy and ensure quota for many rising players toiling in the dark, away from the limelight?
Was this how cricket should have returned to the prestigious Olympics, based on the moneybags proposition rather than legitimacy as a sport worthy of inclusion, rivalling football for popularity? The whole exercise would have seemed a lot more credible had India showcased more of its athletes at the Olympics session, and did not just make it about cricket and its value as a financial proposition.