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Should India bid for the 2036 Olympics?
There are compelling arguments both for and against the prospect of hosting the greatest sporting event on the planet
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This week’s edition is about the biggest news of this past week. Okay, maybe the second biggest. I guess nothing can top cricket’s inclusion in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, which is now official. But last Saturday, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi made a big announcement during the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC’s) annual meeting in Mumbai:
“India is eager to host the Olympics in the country. India will leave no stone unturned in the preparation for the successful organisation of the Olympics in 2036. This is the dream of 140 crore Indians.”
Modi added that India is also eager to host the Youth Olympic Games in 2029 as a precursor to Summer Olympics. While the prime minister did not state which city will be associated with the bid, The Indian Express reported that Ahmedabad is the front-runner, with the Gujarat government already having hired an Australian consultancy firm to prepare its bid.
Gujarat is building the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Sports Enclave, which will have venues for over 20 Olympic sports. It’s right next to the Narendra Modi Stadium, the world’s largest cricket stadium, which will host the 2023 World Cup final.
Modi’s announcement came days after India’s best performance at the Asian Games, where it won more than 100 medals for the first time. India also recorded its best performance at the Olympics in Tokyo two years ago, with seven medals, including a first athletics gold.
All this would suggest that India will be in prime shape to host the Olympics in 13 years.
It’s not that simple, though.
Of national pride and white elephants
India’s ambition to host the Olympics isn’t new. As far back as 2017, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) had asked for the government’s permission to bid for the 2032 Olympics and the 2030 Asian Games. In 2019, the IOA secretary general at the time, Rajeev Mehta, had reportedly submitted a formal expression of India’s interest to bid for the 2032 Olympics.
That interest, however, never formalised into an official bid. The 2032 Games were awarded to Brisbane without a rival bid. Meanwhile, India shifted its focus to 2036, with the government keenly on board. In December last year, India’s sports minister Anurag Thakur announced that India is ready to bid for the 2036 Olympics. He also confirmed the state of Gujarat’s interest in hosting the Games. “They have the infrastructure — from hotels, hostels, airports and sports complexes. They are serious about the bid. It’s also part of the state government’s manifesto to host the Olympics in Gujarat,” he said.
The benefits of hosting the Olympics are clear. The host city stands a chance to get a boost in tourism, while its civic and sporting infrastructure also gets enriched. It’s also a great brand-building exercise for the host nation and ties in with India’s push to present itself as the leader of the Global South. Modi has already said that India’s hosting of the G20 summit earlier this year in more than 60 cities is “evidence of our logistics and our organising capacity at all levels”. And, of course, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Indian athletes to perform and shine in front of their home fans.
However, there are significant drawbacks, too. Most worryingly, there is enough evidence in the last four decades to show that hosting an Olympics can cripple a nation’s economy. It took Canada 30 years to repay a debt of C$1.6 billion for the 1976 Montreal Olympics, which was mired by a string of corruption scandals. More recently, the 2004 Athens Olympics destroyed Greece’s economy. Also see this ESPN feature about how the 2016 Rio Olympics left a city and country reeling from corruption, debt and broken promises.
According to a 2016 study (pdf) at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, the Olympic Games held over the previous 10 years each cost $8.9 billion on average. That’s just for the sporting infrastructure and doesn’t include “building road, rail, airport, and hotel infrastructure, which often cost more than the Games themselves”. The 2012 London Olympics were supposed to cost £2.3 billion (about $3.4 billion at the time). They ended up costing anywhere between $11 billion-$15 billion.
While an advanced economy such as the United Kingdom might be able to survive such an escalation, can a still developing nation like India afford a $15 billion-$20 billion Olympics?
Nandan Kamath, managing trustee of the GoSports Foundation, a nonprofit working towards developing India’s Olympic and Paralympic athletes, says that the enormous cost of hosting an Olympics does not give the host the luxury of treating the event purely as a branding opportunity. “It may still be possible to justify the costs—and the opportunity costs—if the host is able to build and sustain a legacy plan.”
A legacy plan would involve ensuring that hosting the Olympics benefits all Indians and not just the ~500 athletes who will prepare for the Games. “The Olympics can play an ambassadorial role. For a meaningful legacy, a large part of the population must be capable of benefiting in the event’s wake. It should improve the overall health and physical activity levels, get more people to play sports and enjoy its socio-economic benefits, increase livelihoods, and catalyse the sports industry and ecosystem,” Kamath adds.
The groundwork for this legacy needs to be laid right now. This includes ensuring that the sporting infrastructure built for the Games does not gather cobwebs once the event ends. There are also maintenance costs.
Sydney’s Olympic Stadium costs $30 million annually to run. Beijing’s iconic 91,000-capacity Bird’s Nest, built for the 2008 Olympics, costs $10 million a year to maintain. The Guardian’s Owen Gibson described it as “an empty monument to China’s magnificence” in a 2015 piece.
India, too, has its own so-called white elephants. The multipurpose Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi, built for the 1982 Asian Games and renovated at a cost of ₹961 crore ($210 million at the time) for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, has not hosted an athletics event since 2018. It was, however, picked as the home venue for Punjab FC, the newest entrant in the Indian Super League (ISL), this season. Prior to that, though, the stadium wasn’t used for more than 10 days a year, according to a senior official who’s worked in multiple sports in India.
“We are very good at building things but rubbish at maintaining them. The stadiums are never built to last beyond the event they were built for. Sport is all about getting it right week after week, month after month, and that’s not something conducive to our culture,” the senior official adds. They requested anonymity to protect business interests.
To avoid an encore, Viren Rasquinha, former India hockey captain and CEO of the nonprofit Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), suggests a multi-city bid that involves using existing infrastructure as much as possible. “We should make it as low-cost and viable a Games as possible. I am always wary about creating white elephants. If we are building any new infrastructure, it should be multipurpose, and the bid should involve legacy planning in terms of utilising the infrastructure in the long-term.” While there has never been a multi-city Olympics so far, the IOC is open to the idea.
Then, there’s the matter of athlete performance. India has only won 35 medals at the Olympics in its entire history. That’s fewer than the gold medals won by the US (39) and China (38) at Tokyo 2020 alone. India’s medals have also come in only eight sports: hockey, shooting, athletics, badminton, wrestling, boxing, weightlifting, and tennis. The 2024 Olympics in Paris will have 32 sports.
If India wants to have an effective bid, it also needs to have a medal-contending contingent, says Kamath. “There’s no point being a good host and not even coming to your own party. The primary focus should be to get Indian athletes ready for 2036 across multiple disciplines and improve both participation numbers and results. If you look at Beijing 2008, China prepared its contingent for over a decade in the lead-up. You can’t win fewer than 30-40 medals at your home Olympics.”
After the disastrous 1976 Montreal Olympics, in which Canada failed to win a single gold medal, there have been very few countries that didn’t excel at their home Olympics. Only Greece and Brazil finished outside the top six.
The host nation gets preference in terms of picking some of the events. For instance, Los Angeles 2028 will have flag football, lacrosse, and baseball, sports in which the US is bound to dominate. With cricket returning to the Olympics after over a century, that can only be good news for a potential Indian Olympic bid. India can also guarantee some more medals by picking sports like kabaddi. However, the real concern would be India’s ineffectiveness in sports that offer multiple medals. Like swimming, where India failed to win a single medal even at the Asian Games.
This again goes back to India’s sporting culture. While western countries are increasingly using sports as an effective tool to achieve larger development goals, like improving health and productivity, this understanding is still nascent in India, according to a 2023 report called CSR and Sports in India, authored by law firm Pacta and the nonprofit Sports and Society Accelerator.
“Historically, Indian decision makers have viewed sports primarily as an outcome, measuring success by achievements of athletes and teams at marquee events,” the report says. However, there are signs of change. The Haryana and Odisha state governments have pioneered and adopted a sports for development approach that’s “based on inclusion, equity, access, and participation alongside sporting success,” the report adds.
With the emergence of nonprofits like GoSports, OGQ, and Lakshya in the last decade, along with conglomerates like the JSW Group, Reliance Industries, and Adani Group that are heavily investing in sports, India has started doing well in terms of nurturing and supporting top talent. The government’s Target Olympic Podium scheme has also benefited hundreds of professional athletes. But there’s still a lot that needs to be done in terms of building a proper pipeline of talent.
A lot of that comes down to the incompetence of national sports federations, which have been plagued with issues such as corruption, nepotism, fraud, and sexual harassment. It’s rather ironic that the IOC threatened to suspend the Indian Olympic Association just over a year ago due to internal disputes and governance issues. A day after Modi’s announcement of India’s interest in bidding for the 2036 Olympics, a senior IOC official even conveyed his organisation’s displeasure over the delay in appointing a new chief executive at IOA.
There are only a handful of federations doing a good job, says Rasquinha, including athletics, hockey, and shooting. “But there are 60 other federations that are not good at the moment. Good governance is critical if we’re serious about an Olympic bid. That means having the right leadership, vision, ethics, and compliances at every level, from anti-doping to sexual harassment.”
Kamath agrees, saying that sports governance is a core function, and it must become a policy and legal focus area. That might happen now with the government closely involved with the bid. “With the prime minister expressing intent, the political will is there, and I believe the incentives will be better aligned than ever before. The sports ministry becomes a frontline ministry, and governance reform is inevitable if we seek to play host to a successful Olympics,” he adds.
Another positive from India’s potential Olympic bid is the fact that you can’t manufacture medals, says the senior official quoted earlier. “India will have to make a concerted effort in the next 10-12 years to ensure we get at least 20-25 medals. It will benefit Indian sports in the long run to host an Olympics simply because it’s a matter of national pride.”
One can only hope that national pride doesn’t worsen decades of debt and financial crises.
🐭🇮🇳🏏 The Walt Disney Company’s Indian sports business reported an operating loss of $444 million on revenue of $637 million for the nine-month period ending July 1. This period included the 2022 ICC Men’s T20 World Cup, the 2023 Indian Premier League (television only), and India cricket bilaterals. Meanwhile, ESPN, its sports business in the US, generated an operating profit of $1.8 billion on revenue of $12.5 billion for the same period. The company’s overall sports business notched up an operating profit of $1.4 billion on revenue of $13.2 billion.
🏏🇮🇳🇵🇰 In some good news for Disney, though, the India-Pakistan World Cup match helped its streaming platform Hotstar set the global cricket streaming record for peak concurrent viewership: 35 million. The previous record was 32 million, set by rival Viacom18’s JioCinema during the 2023 IPL. As many as 225 million viewers tuned in to watch the India-Pakistan game on Hotstar, per The Economic Times.
📺🤙💰 Meanwhile, Disney has now reportedly held preliminary discussions with rival Sony to sell its India business, per Mint. Sony is considering it as a plan B in case its troubled merger with Zee falls through. Disney has previously spoken to Reliance Industries, the Adani Group, and Sun TV, among others, as it considers selling a part of or its entire India business.
🏀📺💰 ESPN and Warner Bros. Discovery’s TNT, which together pay about $2.6 billion a year to broadcast the NBA, may not be so spendthrift when the league’s next media rights auction comes up next year. The Wall Street Journal reports the two broadcasters are exploring signing up for smaller packages, rather than the ~165 nationally televised games they offer combined. This would allow the NBA to tap streaming services like Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, and YouTube, which see sports as a subscriber magnet. The NBA is expecting to triple its media rights income to ~$78 billion over a decade.
⛳️📺 Will Netflix be interested in the NBA rights? It would all depend on how the streaming giant’s first live sports event goes next month. On November 14, the stars of its sports docu-series Drive to Survive and Full Swing will take part in a golf tournament called the Netflix Cup in Las Vegas. Here’s a teaser.
⚽️🔴⚪️ The Manchester United sale saga, which has dragged on for nearly a year, could finally end soon, with Qatar’s Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani withdrawing from the process to buy the club. This leaves British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe as the only other publicly declared interested party. Ratcliffe has bid £1.3 billion to buy 25% of the club, which would mean current owners, the Glazer family, would still be majority shareholders. Per reports, Ratcliffe wants to gain sporting control of the club, while the Glazers continue running the commercial operations. Thoughts, United fans?
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