By Prashant Kapila:
India’s campaign in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio ended with our tenacious and intrepid athletes winning two medals. The voluble media, ever vigilant for an issue to wrap their tentacles around, have latched on this topic, with calls for sacking the sports federation apparatchiks (officials) and increasing the budgetary sanctions for athletes. The government for its part has announced a task force which will prepare an action plan for the next three Olympic games.
Amidst all the heat and dust of the manufactured dissent caused by the media uproar, it will surely do us justice to pause and catch our breaths.
So first things first, let us look at the mission of Olympic Spirit which is and I quote, “to build a peaceful and better world in the Olympic Spirit which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”
Lofty words indeed which in the true spirit of doublespeak intend to obfuscate the reality of the Games as money grabbing enterprise which pits country against country to fight like gladiators for the ‘real’ winners, which of course is the International Olympic Committee.
The IOC earned a revenue of 6 billion dollars in 2012, all while being a not-for-profit organisation. Of course, the IOC which is headquartered in Lausanne in Switzerland does not disclose how it spends the money, for in what is best described, a convenient coincidence, Switzerland does not require not-for-profits to disclose their financial details.
But, this diverts us from the main issue. India according to numerous news reports, spent between Rs. 30 Lakhs and 1 Crore on each of the 118 athletes in the contingent. The amount seems large enough, but then we are told that even more money is required.
This is certainly true; the Olympics are no more an event where amateurs driven by their passion for their sports strive to succeed. Huge sums of money now fuel Olympic success, large support staff of coaches, physical therapists, masseurs, psychologists, and dieticians.
The latest technology and medical knowledge is pressed into service to record every possible quantifiable data point of the human body so that the athlete will peak on the day of the competition.
It, therefore, should not come as a surprise that Olympic success is correlated with one factor only, the amount spent on the athletes. Great Britain, which won 67 medals in Rio, spent £387 million on its athletes.
Reports calculate the cost per medal to be £5 million. As a whole, the UK spends £1.5 billion on sports compared to India which spent £500 million. While Britain can afford such luxuries, can we or should we look to spend so much on the glories of a few individuals.
The proponents of the Olympic juggernaut will say yes. They will resolutely state benefits like an increased international visibility and influence, and the growth of a sports culture in the country, all of which non-measurable. These benefits, however, if we look closely are not worth the amount, which we would need to spend to become an Olympic power.
Take for instance the claim that an increased medal tally will signal India’s ascendancy in the world. This is a highly specious claim.
We are no longer living in the Cold-War era where the world powers dedicate their efforts and money to getting a high medal tally, often at the expense of the starving masses, and the athletes own well being. There was a time when the totalitarian states of the communists could increase their own control over their subjects by claiming world domination through Olympic domination.
In that era of isolation, where information could not easily cross the world, the Olympics were certainly a means to weigh global prestige. In the present day and age, there are far more important indicators of a country’s development and in world politics, health, education and income and not some ideal of Olympic success as measure for a country that has ‘made it.’
The most compelling argument for a withdrawal from funding Olympic athletes may be this: does the state have a duty towards funding individual triumphs, which have no direct bearing on the rest of the citizenry?
If so, then why don’t we have government funding of talent hunt competitions? Surely, singers, stand-up comedians, Bollywood actors, dancers, chefs all have the same and a perhaps greater amount of national and international prestige.
These people work hard as athletes and contribute even more to the economy and the development of culture and soft power. While millions starve to death, people die for lack of medical care, and countless children have no access to schools, is it not immoral that the government spends taxpayers money on a few?
Or is it another sign of hypnotism by the media where a mass spectacle is used to ensure that the proletariat forgets the most pressing issues?
In any case, the most successful nation in the Olympics, The United States of America, does not give any federal funding to its athletes. The US Olympic Committee does not get even one penny of the taxpayer’s money.
Instead, it raises funds through the sale of broadcasting rights and sponsorship and funding by corporates. Even this in many cases is not sufficient to cover athletes expenses, and many athletes who end up on the podium have to raise their own money through internet crowd-funding schemes, acting in TV shows, modelling and getting part-time jobs.
Further, even the grants to the individual sports associations are entirely performance based, and a dip in performance in the Olympics usually leads to a cut in the funding.
In case the government does sponsor the Olympic Associations, the least, which can be done, is to ensure that the funding is directly tied to the athlete’s performance so that there is some sort of rationality in the funding mechanism.
This in no way an excuse for the government to not fulfil it’s responsibility to develop sporting infrastructure. Sports are an inextricable part of education and a key factor for the development of a healthy society. However, this responsibility of the government is only limited to providing basic infrastructure to ensure access to sports to all.
There is no justification to posit that individual avocations must be funded. While the sight of our citizens clutching a few shiny medals may make us proud, we cannot overlook the millions spent for a two week carnival, is a bad investment, to say the least.