Eighty eight years after India first participated at the Olympic Games in Antwerp in 1920, shooting prodigy Abhinav Bindra finally found the Holy Grail in the 2008 Beijing Games. As the Indian tricolour was hoisted in Beijing, the poise and pride on the bespectacled shooter’s visage spoke to a billion Indians, becoming a leit motif of gung-ho chest thumping in media commentaries and nationalist iconography. In a country of a billion, and a competitive media industry looking for new heroes and new stories, the lone gold medal was justification enough to spark off celebrations worthy of topping the medals tally.

For Indian sports business, Beijing proved to be a watershed. It was much more than a sporting spectacle not just because India’s performance at Beijing was its best ever at the Games but also because it heralded the promise of a new beginning for Indian sports. Bindra was not an aberration. Three major themes emerged in the discourse that followed: renewed media focus on Olympic sports as a nationalist playing field, the promise of a new Indian sporting culture and the fear that without systemic change in Indian sporting structures, this would be yet another false dawn.
All of this brings us to the Delhi Commonwealth Games of 2010 and the question, ‘How Prepared Are We?’ with just under a year to go for the biggest sporting spectacle India has ever staged.

Chasing the Commonwealth Mirage
The simple answer to the question, ‘how prepared are we’ is that we are only half prepared with less than a year left for the Games. Construction is no more than half complete, a volunteer programme is non-existent, a legacy plan is nowhere to be seen, there isn’t any effort to use the games to promote educational initiatives, as was done in abundance in Beijing, and finally the Games village is still far from being ready.

In athletic terms the reality isn’t any better. Some of our shooters still don’t have a coach, there’s no plan to get our shuttlers to practice together, wrestlers continue to protest the lack of funds and weightlifting continues to suffer from internal wrangling.

This state of under-preparedness becomes especially pertinent when we note that Amsterdam, hosts of the 1928 Olympiad, has already started preparing for the 2028 Games. Also, Glasgow, hosts of the 2014 Commonwealth Games are already well advanced in building the necessary stadia and in attempts at community integration leading to the Games.

However, this is where we can all go mighty wrong. Simply put — we cannot compare India with the global west and expect the world’s best practices model to work in our unique environment. In India, it is perhaps right to say that there is order behind every chaos, a situation that the global west finds impossible to comprehend. Despite lagging behind, we are confident of staging a quality event that will showcase India to the world. That’s how we have operated over the years and that’s how we will continue to operate. It is time the CGF and the CAG grasps this reality.

When it first put forward Delhi’s bid, the Indian Olympic Association argued that it was “an opportunity to showcase our wonderful land and its people and our great sports infrastructure and traditions.”

Some say that for all our great power pretensions, can a country where 28.3% people still live below the poverty line really afford this kind of expenditure on a sporting event of this kind? These are important questions, especially for a government that came back to power on the vote of the aam aadmi (common man). The coffers of the Government of India are not bottomless. Between 2007 and 2009, it was estimated by at least one eminent economist that total government spending was as much as nine times its income. At such a time it is only natural that the Commonwealth Games appears to be an expensive diversion and that Delhi continues to be under-prepared.

At the same time one must remember that the Games are more than just a simple arithmetic calculation about resource allocations. This is about a rising India and its global power projection. When Pranab Mukherjee rose to present the Union Budget for 2009-10 he was clear on this, saying “The Commonwealth Games present the country with an opportunity to showcase our potential as an emerging Asian power.”

In a sense, the Government of India has no choice now. Under-prepared or not, the die has been cast and the costs are now beyond its control thanks to the downturn. The ‘Games train’ has left the station. Studying similar sporting events in the past, one knows that once such Games are set in motion, the costs of failure “become too ghastly to contemplate”. This has a dynamic of its own, weighing particularly heavily on emerging/smaller centres, who do not have an established reputation for successful event management and who may be subject to prejudicial doubts about their ability to do so.

Delhi is certainly not a small centre but the argument holds true. We are terrified of failing before the glare of the world’s cameras and in that sense, India is falling prey to what Havana did for the Latin American Games in 1991, Kuala Lumpur for the 1998 Commonwealth Games and Athens for the 2004 Olympics.

Delhi, it seems, is falling prey to what has been called the ‘winner’s curse’. It is now on the governmentof Delhi/India and the organising committee to turn the curse into a miracle in the remaining 360 odd days. If the Greeks managed to pull off a successful Olympiad despite being hugely underprepared just months before the extravaganza in 2004, India can still hope to get its act right with all its technological advancement and human resources. To paraphrase President Lula’s mantra, which he used to win the Olympic bid for Rio in Copenhagen on October 2, ‘It is our turn’ and we can still do it.

The authors are writing a book on the politics of the Commonwealth Games, to be published in March 2010