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A Place On The Podium: When Will We See An Indian Olympics?

31/05/2017 8:26 AM IST | Updated 31/05/2017 8:29 AM IST
Sergio Moraes / Reuters

The Evaluation Commission for the International Olympics Committee (IOC) has just returned from two of the world's cultural capitals, Los Angeles and Paris, with the 2024 Olympic Games in mind. One of those two cities will be chosen at the IOC Session in Peru on 13 September. Those watching the process from India, though, could be forgiven for asking why Mumbai or New Delhi weren't on the itinerary. After all, India has never hosted an Olympics, even if half the country apparently thinks it has.

It certainly isn't for a lack of interest. The Modi government was in discussions with the IOC regarding a potential bid back in 2015, with Modi determined to anticipate the logistical implications of hosting an Olympic Games in India. His concern stemmed from the 2010 Commonwealth Games, which were plagued by corruption scandals but also by excessive bureaucratic red tape, cost overruns, and poor construction of venues and housing. Special attention was paid to the success of the Commonwealth Games specifically because they were seen as a test run for an Indian Olympics.

Despite Modi's "zero-tolerance" policy on the issue, it will take years of hard work and difficult reforms to stamp out the graft that came with the Commonwealth Games.

If Modi or his eventual successors want to avoid footing the bill of a poorly planned Olympics, there are two areas where major improvements are needed. The first of course, is governance. India's difficult battle against corruption is well-documented, and despite Modi's "zero-tolerance" policy on the issue, it will take years of hard work and difficult reforms to stamp out the graft that came with the Commonwealth Games.

The second, and perhaps far more pressing to make any Indian city a viable contender, is the issue of India's weak transportation infrastructure. For a host city, the Olympics Games represent an immense infrastructural challenge — alongside the thousands of athletes, journalists and officials vital to the event itself, any Olympics can be expected to draw in hundreds of thousands of spectators that need to be housed and transported for the duration.

Indian roadways are overburdened — the national road network is the second-largest in the world, but ranks a lowly 87th in terms of quality.

Los Angeles and Paris offer instructive examples of just how critical infrastructure is for a successful Olympics. Both have hosted the Olympics before and insist they are ready to repeat the feat. Los Angeles is proposing a budget of $5.3 billion (not counting infrastructure costs and security), planning to revamp existing venues from the 1984 Games while housing athletes at the University of California at Los Angeles campus. Paris is also planning to limit spending by focusing on utilising existing infrastructure and relying on private funds for construction.

Because of its world-class public transport services and commitment to sustainability, the French capital might enjoy an edge. In Los Angeles, public transit does not come naturally. A cornerstone of the city's transit plans for the Olympics revolve around completing the 'purple line' of the LA underground system a decade ahead of schedule. To do that, the city will need money from the US federal government. How much money? LA mayor Eric Garcetti revealed during a visit to Washington, DC to meet with Donald Trump's transportation secretary that the city needed $1.6 billion. Unfortunately, those funds cannot be seen as a given. In the meantime, LA residents continue to set records for traffic congestion — the average driver there spent 104 hours of last year stuck in traffic, the highest for any city in the world.

In India, aging transit infrastructure is struggling to keep up with demand on both the national and local levels. The national rail corridors face deadly shortcomings in terms of necessary maintenance and funding. Other issues include the differential speeds of trains, inadequate connectivity, lower throughput and longer turnaround periods. Indian roadways are similarly overburdened — the national road network is the second-largest in the world, but ranks a lowly 87th in terms of quality. Poorly-maintained roads impact both passenger and freight transport, increasing risks for drivers and damaging vehicles. Fortunately, upgrading and modernising the national transportation network has been a major priority for the current government — the 2017 budget includes 2,41,387 crorefor roads, rail and shipping.

In Mumbai alone, rail traffic has increased sixfold in 40 years, with capacity barely doubling over the same period.

Many of these national infrastructure issues play out locally as well. In Mumbai alone, rail traffic has increased sixfold in 40 years, with capacity barely doubling over the same period. Overcrowding has made using public transportation in Mumbai a deadly experience. In 2015 alone, train accidents killed 3,304 people and injured 3,349 more. Delhi's roads share a reputation for deadliness with Mumbai's trains, with four people dying in traffic accidents every day. The bus network, which handles 60 percent of travel demand, does not have the vehicles it needs — only 215 new buses have been added in the last two years. Delhi also has a different problem — a reputation of danger for female travellers, heightened by a series of ghastly crimes that took place on public transport.

Another infrastructural challenge is also holding India back — a comparative lack of sports infrastructure. Despite being the world's second most populous nation, India retains the worst Olympic record in terms of medals per head. In the past three decades, it has secured only one gold medal. India sent its largest delegation ever to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics with 117 athletes, and still only managed to bring home two medals. Still a poor nation in terms of per capita income, sport undoubtedly remains low on the government list of priorities. That is slowly changing, however. Shortly after the 2016 Games, the Modi government announced the establishment of a task force to prepare a comprehensive action plan to boost athletic performance, which has led to calls for greater investment in infrastructure and equipment.

In the past three decades, India has secured only one gold medal.

The challenges are obvious, but the question remains — should India make a serious bid to host an Olympic Games? The answer is yes. A smart, realistic bid would boost interest in the Olympics throughout India, while also encouraging much needed investment in high-density transport and sporting infrastructure that will benefit millions. Olympic development could also bring momentum to Modi's lagging Smart Cities initiative, showcasing the development of intelligent transport systems that can help solve congestion and capacity issues. If a successful Olympic bid could secure the necessary publicity and support for existing initiatives, it would be revolutionary.

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