Sunday, August 24, 2008

India Olympic Hero Gets Boost from Mittal

India Olympic Hero Gets Boost from Mittal

For a country that pretends not to care about the Olympics, India certainly threw itself a heck of a party the night of Aug. 11, when a 25-year-old with a bad back and steady aim won India's first individual gold medal. TV channels provided wall-to-wall coverage, families danced in the streets, and political leaders tried to outdo each other in handing out hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money.

Here, give him a prize of $60,000, said India's richest sports body, the Board of Control of Cricket in India, which had nothing to do with the 10-meter air rifle event in which Abhinav Bindra won the gold. Here, said India's Railways Minister, handing out a free lifetime railway pass to Bindra, whose family is privileged enough that it's doubtful he will ever take a train.

If only all that support had come before the event. Every four years when the Olympics come around, India hangs its head in shame, with public finger-pointing and consternation that a nation of a billion people cannot find one athlete to bring home a little piece of gold. The country's sports stadiums are crumbling relics from the 1950s and '60s, with training facilities so ancient that athletes beg for opportunities to train overseas. Because of political problems among the country's sports federations, athletes have to cobble together money for training regimens from as many as nine different organizations.

"I think the whole question is how does everything function," says Bindra, speaking with BusinessWeek from Beijing. "In today's day and age, things have to be run professionally, and unfortunately, that's not how things are done."

Finally, Someone to Cheer for

So it's no surprise that when Bindra, who is now the toast of the nation, ran out of bullets for practice he had to turn to an unlikely source for help: Lakshmi Mittal, one of the richest men in the world and another of India's celebrated sons. Mittal, who is chairman of ArcelorMittal (MT), the world's largest steelmaker, left India many decades ago, but maintains a keen interest in the country. At sporting events—like the 2004 Olympics in Athens—he and his family found themselves cheering for teams picked at random because no Indians had even managed to make it past the qualifiers.

But at the 2005 Wimbledon tennis tournament, he met India's Mahesh Bhupathi, a player who has had considerable success in mixed doubles. Bhupathi and a friend convinced Mittal to put up $10 million to help support a few athletes with an eye toward the London Olympics in 2012, when the Games will be held in Mittal's backyard—he lives in Kensington and can sometimes be seen riding a bicycle in Hyde Park. Regarding Bindra's Beijing triumph, "I am absolutely delighted," says Mittal, whose Mittal Champions Trust got Bindra a physical therapist, a mental trainer, and on that day when the bullets ran out, cartridges to practice with. "This is a great day for Indian sports."

Mittal's trust is administered by his son-in-law, Amit Bhatia, and this year it supported 14 Indian athletes at the Olympics. Many, unlike Bindra, are from less affluent backgrounds, reflecting the kind of conditions under which most of India lives. Archer Laishram Bombayla Devi, who picked up a bow and arrow after seeing people hunt in the fields near her home in rural India, said she spent two years without a coach until the trust stepped in. Now she trains with a foreign coach, for which the trust pays, and has a structured and disciplined training process. "The trust is a lifesaver for a lot of athletes who are not getting any help," she says.

Eye on the Commonwealth Games

But the fact that India's corporate houses have to step in where the government has failed rankles some Indians. Bindra, whose family is well-off, has an MBA, runs his own company, and has extensive training facilities in his house at Chandigarh. Yet, according to Manisha Malhotra, an administrator at the Mittal Champions Trust, there was a behind-the-scenes tug-of-war between the trust and the government.

While Mittal is looking forward to 2012, M.S. Gill, India's Youth Affairs & Sports Minister, and the rest of India officialdom have their sights set on 2010, when Delhi will host the Commonwealth Games. "The credit goes entirely to the player," says Gill. "We are only here to provide support." Indian officials hope the Commonwealth Games will lead to even bigger things. They have watched with some envy as Beijing hosts China's multibillion-dollar coming-out party, and with even greater envy as Chinese athletes compete neck and neck with perennial favorites like the U.S. and Russia.

The goal in Delhi is simple: Just as Beijing is having its moment now, in 2010 the world's eyes will turn to India. India will be only the third developing nation to host the Commonwealth Games, after Jamaica in 1966 and Malaysia in 1998. The government has managed to earmark nearly $12 billion in infrastructure improvements for New Delhi, including sports stadiums, new highways, a brand-new metro rail system, and a new airport. If things go well, the Indian Olympic Assn. wants to bid for the 2020 Olympics to be held in Delhi.

For more, see's slide show.

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