Do we really need these Games?

INDIAN sport is looking up. The real test will, however, come next year. In our endeavour to bring home that elusive Olympic gold, outside of hockey, the country should have been focussing solely on Athens 2004 by now.

INDIAN sport is looking up. The real test will, however, come next year. In our endeavour to bring home that elusive Olympic gold, outside of hockey, the country should have been focussing solely on Athens 2004 by now. But wait, we have an important task at home to finish. The Afro-Asian Games in Hyderabad.

We surely have our priorities mixed up. Forgetting for a moment the crores being spent to entertain guests from abroad, in the name of Afro-Asian solidarity, the IOA has lost sight of the targets set for an Olympic year. Thus, we have the unpleasant situation of the IOA chief requesting the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) President to include Dhanraj Pillay in the Afro-Asian Games squad when the coaches have advised that he should be rested. We also have the weightlifting federation on the horns of a dilemma, whether to put everything in the Afro-Asian Games basket, to save the IOA from embarrassment, or to keep the best in reserve for the World championships that will follow. The World championships will decide the Olympic quota.

The athletes are not too happy that they would be competing October-end instead of taking a well-earned rest. The football coach is concerned that his team would be going into the competition without proper match practice. Even the second-rung tennis players are not available to represent the country. But who cares? We should have the Games. "It is an international commitment.''

The now-on, now-off Games had come through traumatic birth-pangs in the 80s and 90s before being fixed for November, 2001. Nine-eleven all but dealt a fatal blow before the IOA and the Union Government put life back into the Games. Then, out of the blue, the Prime Minister suggested Hyderabad as the venue. New Delhi, the original venue through a dozen years, was dropped for no apparent reason. By then, nearly 41-crore rupees were sunk in the stadia in the Capital and an organising committee of several hundred members had met and cashed TA/DA bills.

When the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister came calling on the Centre for money, as much as Rs 190 crores, there were naturally grumbles. Why should anyone pay air fare and board and lodging expenses for sportspersons, coaches and managers from abroad? Why should we pay for delegates from 96 countries to attend a meeting when only half that many nations might actually be competing? Bureaucratic grumbles are invariably smothered under the political tete-a-tete. This one was no different.

Thank God, they are not giving appearance money to African athletes! Already there are doubts whether the top-ranked athletes and swimmers, football players and tennis players would come, notwithstanding the facade that is being put up. But everything is in place including two new astro-turf pitches that should benefit hockey at a time when the game has caught the imagination of the public and the marketing men. Forget the Rs 136 crores that was squeezed out of a reluctant Centre.

Should we have such Games when we can't find funds to maintain existing infrastructure, when we cannot feed our elite sportspersons properly, when National championships are conducted in appalling conditions, when we cannot honour commitments made to our medal-winning sportspersons? When our entire Union sports budget for a year is around Rs 260 crores?

"We have to show to the world how well we can organise such Games as we bid to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games,'' comes the reply from the IOA. But should we host the Commonwealth Games at a cost of around 385 million dollars? "Unless we do that we will be nowhere in international sports,'' so goes the argument.

China has hosted just one Asian Games so far, the one in Beijing in 1990. It will host its first Olympic Games in 2008. It took its own time in coming into the mainstream of international sport. Once it did, the results were spectacular. China won 54 medals in the 1992 Olympic Games, 50 in the 1996 Games and 59 including 28 gold in the Sydney Games. Through that period, India won just two bronze medals, thanks to Leander Paes and Karnam Malleswari. Overall, independent India has just three bronze medals in Olympics outside of hockey. And we have hosted two Asian Games so far. No further elaboration should be necessary.

Population figures and the ability to host multi-discipline Games, with or without extravagant opening ceremonies, have nothing to do with sporting success at the highest international levels. The sooner Kalmadi and Co. understand this, the better it will be for the country. And we are not forgetting the bagful of medals India is poised to take from the Hyderabad Games. Athens will be a different ball game, though.