Lakshmi Mittal deserves a pat

SPORT in India owes a debt of gratitude to Lakshmi Mittal. The London based Indian billionaire, who has set up the "Mittal Champions Trust'', has added a new dimension to the concept of sponsorship.

It is sad, but true, that around 90 percent or more of the resources available for sportsmen are targeted for the benefit of cricketers and cricket related programmes.

Such an aberration cannot be corrected, unless sportspersons in other disciplines gain access to sponsorship, so as to enhance their skills and achieve success on the international arena. It is in this perspective that one needs to examine the merits of Lakshmi Mittal's gesture of setting up Rs. 40 crore in the kitty with guidelines framed.

What Mittal has in mind clearly reflects his motivation. "I went to Athens to see the Olympics last year, and was excited by the performances, but was disappointed to see India languishing at the bottom. When Lithuania can win medals why not India?''

The idea behind launching this trust is to produce medal winners at the London Olympics in 2012, or sometime before, even at the 2008 Beijing Olympics or in the Commonwealth Games that India is hosting in 2010. But mere gathering of resources will not help achieve the goals. Imperative in this exercise is pragmatic planning and impeccable systematisation, which are definitely lacking in the Indian sports for decades.

Mittal has sent a clear signal to other sponsors that there is more to helping sportspersons than mere mileage in the media. It is a fact, that the majority of business houses view the sponsorship support, mainly for cricket and tennis, from the standpoint of advertisement, or creating a brand ambassador. The motive is marketing and profit. But everyone in this game is not tired of reiterating the theme of commitment to society or portraying the effort as social obligation.

The Mittal Champions Trust has set its priorities right. Apart from the members of Mittal's family, the managers of the trust are accomplished sportsmen, whose passion for promotion is unquestioned. The first beneficiary is the squash champion, Joshna Chinnappa, who is blossoming on the international stage.

While it is mandatory that the Trust should give a helping hand to non-cricketers who have made a mark despite financial constraints, the members would do well to spread the net and identify untapped talent that may be Olympic medal prospects.

Mittal himself mentioned the discovery of a star in Mahendra Singh Dhoni from Jharkand. The focus should also shift to non-elite sports like archery, weightlifting and boxing, where the rural talent may well be languishing for want of support. The recent gold medal triumph of woman boxer M. C. Marycom is a case in point of talent crying for recognition.

Sponsorship as a concept has always been present in Indian sport in one form or the other. Before independence, several rulers of the States were known to be generous in their support to prominent players. The rulers of Holkar, Patiala, and Baroda have all been in the forefront of helping cricketers. It is an acknowledged fact that the Maharajah of Mysore, Jayachamaraja Wadiyar, had helped the tennis ace Ramanathan Krishnan monetarily in the 1950s.

The era of corporate sponsorship, after the dawn of independence and after the Government's schemes came forth, lacked focus. That the Government is still wrestling with a workable sports policy is a sad illustration of the ambiguous priorities in the last five decades or more. Even media's criticism about a few disciplines stands justified.

It is now clear that the sportspersons, other than the cricketers, will revel on the international stage. There are up and coming stars in athletics, archery, golf, badminton, tennis, boxing, weightlifting and rifle shooting, competent enough to scoop a medal or two in the Olympics or in a World Championship. What they need is support, like Lakshmi Mittal, to lift their morale.

The Trust involving top names, including the Test captain, Rahul Dravid, is born not a day too soon. It should serve as the beacon to other corporate managers that there is something worthwhile beyond the realms of cricket.