Sunday, August 15, 2010

Commonwealth Games: The Politics of Sports

The excitement of the forthcoming Commonwealth Games is building up in Delhi. The spot light is not on sporting performance, but the construction delays, cost overruns, and allegations of corruption. These are symptoms which have affected many other projects. I believe, the legacy of these games could be that all such projects would be put under similar scrutiny. Below there is a table giving the official break up of expenditure on account of the games, and related development project. A version of this article was published in the Wall Street Journal Online, on 10 Aug 2010, titled "India's Political Games".

Indian politicians played games in Parliament, this week, as they debated the chaos surrounding the Commonwealth Games set to open in Delhi, on October 3. While dozens of members of Parliament from many political parties had their say, the chairman of the CWG organizing committee, Mr Suresh Kalmadi, who is also a MP from the ruling Congress party, chose not to speak.

It is politically correct to believe that sports and politics should not be mixed. But international sporting events are often close to a war, which is politics by another name! Equally politics is a sport too, and can be even more exciting.

Less than two months before the Commonwealth Games is to open in Delhi, the media is giving live commentary on the state of preparations. Everything that could have gone wrong, seems to have gone wrong – construction delays, poor quality of construction, cost escalation, allegations of corruption and money laundering, inflated prices of items procured, resignation and sacking of senior officials.

Virtually every agency of the government at the city, state and national levels, and the CWG organizing committee, have been starring in this competition for a share of the wealth, which the games have provided.

But should anyone be surprised? Political leaders have always used sporting opportunities to try and claim a share of the glory and the pie.

For instance, the communist countries traditionally invested a lot in sports in order to show its prowess, in an attempt to seek legitimacy for its political system. Following the collapse of the Soviet Empire, China has the baton, and has emerged as a major sporting nation. The Beijing Olympics in 2008, was therefore much more than just the medals won by China.

Politics in sports has a long history. The 1936 Berlin Olympics was tailor made for Hitler to display his Aryan supremacy. Unfortunately, Jesse Owens punctured that balloon on the field. Even India had a small role, winning the first field hockey gold medal by beating the German team. That was India’s first of the eight Olympic gold medals in hockey.

But India is not a sporting powerhouse. According to some calculations, India is among the two bottom ranked countries on the ratio of Olympic medals to population size. India’s lone individual Olympic gold was won only in Beijing by Mr Abhinav Bindra in shooting. Bindra hardly owed anything to India’s sports establishment, but to his parents who were capable of meeting the requirements for his talents to blossom.

Comparisons with the Beijing Olympics and the recent Soccer World cup in South Africa are inevitably being drawn.

The question is, if Beijing did it, South Africa could do it, can India follow? The answer lies in politics. Both China and South Africa had primarily a political reason for wanting to host a major international sporting event. For the Chinese authorities, the Olympic was an opportunity to announce to the world, and more importantly to its own people, that it can exercise control, yet awe the world. On display was China’s political capacity, in terms of resources, technology and management, to handle the spectacle. Although an area in Beijing was demarcated for officially sanctioned protests, officials did not approve even one of the 77 applications for protest during the games. And it was among the top two in the medals tally.

For South Africa, following the end of apartheid, and establishment of democratic freedoms, it wanted an event that would provide an opportunity to showcase the new country. South Africa overcame all the doubts and hiccups to present a most fun filled World Cup, probably because most South Africans had apparently accepted the idea. Although, the tickets were priced beyond the reach of most citizens, and the home team was not expected to progress beyond the initial group stage, the fans more than made up for it by staying engaged and supporting a diverse range of teams competing. They created a new icon – the vuvuzela! The noise of the vuvuzelas was drowned only once when the real life icon, Nelson Mandela, made a brief appearance during the closing ceremony.

Unlike South Africa, organizers of CWG have not really involved the ordinary people, and the public at large seems to have not taken to the idea of the games with any particular enthusiasm. And, unlike China, Indian leaders did not really have any broad political vision for the games.

India had bid for the CWG in 2003, when the “India Shining” campaign of the BJP led coalition government in Delhi was at its peak in the run up to the national parliament election in 2004. But, the campaign did not inspire the voters, and the electoral mandate passed on to the Congress led coalition. The Congress in its election strategy had focused on the common man, the “aam admi”, in contrast to those who few were perceived to be real beneficiaries of India’s economic changes.

Consequently, CWG was no longer a political priority. Despite repeated efforts to rope in Mr Rahul Gandhi, the influential Congress general secretary, and son of the party leader, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, he showed little interest. This is in contrast to his father, late Mr Rajiv Gandhi, who began his sudden entry in to public life, by taking over the leadership of the Asian Games in 1982, the last major international sporting event held in India.

The 1982 Asian Games did not bring any political benefit for the political leaders of the day. Within a year the country was torn by social and political unrest, and bloody insurgency in Punjab and Assam. Then in 1984, the violence in Punjab escalated, and the Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

The Asian Games quickly faded from memory, and the sporting infrastructure decayed due to neglect. But the political class seems to have taken a vital lesson, political dividend from such international events are quite illusive. This explains the consistently lukewarm political support for these games.

This lack of political interest in CWG, however, seemed to have created a new incentive for a game of wealth. It would not be far-fetched to suggest that almost every project was initiated late, and deliberately so. After all, unlike traditional infrastructure projects, the CWG projects have a sharp deadline. These delays created an opportunity to justify cost escalation, and lower oversight in the rush to meet the deadline. This is perhaps the best explanation for the unprecedented increase in costs, and the delays.

Connaught Place is the circular arcade at the heart of Delhi. The construction of a new series of underground walkways was initiated barely six months ago, and now the holes on the roads are being filled up, because of the realization that the project cannot be completed before the games.

The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, the main venue of the games, was built in 1982 for about US$ 2.1 million (Rs 10 crores). Today, the cost of renovation and expansion of the facilities in that stadium alone has been put at US$ 204 million (Rs 961 crores). The cost of organizing the games had been put at US$ 31.9 million (Rs 150 crores) in 2003, the current estimate is over ten fold. At that time, it was said the games village would be converted in to students’ hostel after the event. Now it is being sold as premium apartments to the rich and powerful. The total cost of games including some of the infrastructure in Delhi and the various venues have been officially set at US$ 2.4 billion (Rs 11,494 crores), others have estimated at two or three times as much. However, barely 5.7% of the official expenditure is actually aimed at helping the sports persons who are expected to bring laurels to the country.

The games have also been criticized on the ground that the money could have been much better spent on more important developmental projects. But only a small fraction of such expenditure actually reaches the targeted beneficiaries. Administrative costs and leakage, consume the bulk of the budget. There is nothing to assume that the games' money could have been well spent elsewhere. This week, the government acknowledged in parliament that of the 578 large infrastructure projects being monitored, 268 are delayed and have had cost overrun to the tune of $ 10.6 billion (Rs 50,000 crores).

But like everything else, India runs on multiple tracks. While many of the publicly supported sports bodies have systemically failed to produce champions in their disciplines, there are quite a few sports persons who have made their mark on the international arena through their personal dedication and commitment. Ms Saina Nehwal, the current world number two in badminton is the latest star on the horizon, and has just been joined by Ms Tejaswini Sawant who became the first Indian women shooter to win a gold medal at the World Championship in Germany.

The organizing committee of CWG is struggling to raise funds, and has so far secured sponsorship from 11 companies, of which all but two are public sector enterprises, and the Indian Railway. Yet over the past three years, Indian Premiere League for cricket, a game that is played in barely a dozen countries, has emerged among the most promising sporting ventures in the world. The value of the league, in its third year, is estimated at US$ 4.13 billion (Rs 18,000 crores), which compares with the National Football League in the US, and the English Premiere League football ($14 bn). The IPL reportedly had an income of $450 million in 2009, and that is expected to double in 2010. This contrasts sharply with the struggles of the CWG, which got a loan of $500 million from government, with little prospect of recovery.

CWG is caught in an unprecedented dilemma. If it is conducted well, there will be little political dividend, and still be accused of wasting money could have been spent elsewhere. If the games go badly, then of course, they will be damned.

The current public acrimony over CWG is in a way a demonstration of changing political dynamics. The gulf between the abilities of the public and private sector in India are out in the open. The deepening of democracy is bringing the all its public agencies under unprecedented scrutiny, and that is likely to have a much longer lasting impact, than the games. That impact could be more than the medals won in sports, and much more than the apparent gold medal in corruption that many are offering to these games. Asking questions and holding the authorities accountable are the necessary first steps forcing political leaders to explore alternative policy options. That would be a much preferred legacy of the Commonwealth Games for India.

Some tidbits –
  • Over 8000 sports persons and officials from 71 countries are expected to participate. But the hotel industry has not reported any surge in bookings.
  • The Delhi government is trying to ship the beggars out of the some areas of the city where CWG participants might be visiting.
  • Over 70 construction workers have died at different CWG sites. The condition of workers is hardly befitting those who are supposed to be building world class facilities for others.
  • The 1982 organising committee has continued to exist because of a court case involving a dispute over Rs 1.5 crore or about US$ 3 million, and must have spent more money during the past three decades.
  • In 2009, the IPL is estimated to have had an income of $450 million, which is expected to double in 2010. The CWG is struggling to raise even $250 million
  • The current economic crisis in Greece was not helped by the extravaganza at the Athens Olympics in 2004. The legacy of these sporting jamborees is not very rosy.
Commonwealth Games official expenses, based on the statement by Jaipal Reddy, Minister for Urban Development, Govt of India, in Lok Sabha on Aug 9, 2010
Responsibility Type of Project Expenditure in Rs Crores In US dollar (million)
Government of India Sports infrastructure 2,934 624

Training of sports teams 678 144

Loan to CWG organizing committee 2,394 509

MTNL (telephone and connectivity) 182 39

Ministry of Urban Development 828 176

Ministry of Information and Broadcasting 483 103

Ministry of Home affairs (security) 747 159

Ministry of Health 71 15

Archeological Survey of India (monuments) 26 6

Government of Delhi 2,800 596

Others 351 75

TOTAL 11,494 2,446

Government of Delhi On Commonwealth Games (stadiums) 670 143

Flyovers and bridges 3,700 787

ROB, RUB and IG Airport 450 96

BRTS (dedicated bus corridor) 215 46

DTC bus fleet 1,800 383

DTC bus depots 900 191

Roads 650 138

Streetscaping 525 112

Road signages 150 32

Delhi Metro connectivity 3,000 638

Power plants 2,800 596

Water supply 400 85

Health 50 11

Parking facilities 400 85

Communication and IT 200 43

Others 650 138

TOTAL 16,560 3,523


  1. Unlike China and South Africa, India did not have any common desire to showcase itself. And given India's diversity, it would be very difficult to find a common object. Being an open society, the beauty of the Taj Mahal, to the squalor of the slums, the success of the IT industry to the popularity of Bollywood, all are visible to all. Likewise, the Commonwealth Games is perhaps an attractive symbol of emerging India for one segment, but is irrelevant for many others. This seems to be the most plausible reason why the political capital was not invested in these games.

  2. Barun,

    I was in agreement till the last paragraph. But, then it sounded like considering all the arguments you presented till then irrelevant. It is as if you have admitted that strengthening democracy means more government spending-under intense public scrutiny of course.

    I get your point that Government spending won't go away if we wish it to, and that more public scrutiny would deepen democracy. But, I really doubt if it is going to work that way. History is full of examples of government spending which failed miserably. But, few have learn't a lesson from it(Maybe some academic economists and their followers, who are consistent critics of spending), because no such conclusion can be reached empirically. The argument would be whether it happened because of spending or despite of it. Politicians and bureaucrats are very unlikely to say " We are sorry. It didn't work. We were wrong".

    I don't think anyone thinks that government spending is going to go away if we want to. No matter how we defend it, it is going to stay. It would be unrealistic to think otherwise. But, the same could be said of criminal acts. Few would refuse to condemn such acts.

  3. First, government spending will not go away just because we would like it to.
    Secondly, it is only by greater scrutiny of public finance and expenditure, would there be realisation that public expenditure may not be the answer.
    Thirdly, it is from such realisation will there rise the need to explore other approaches.
    Finally, which is why I mentioned the IPL example, in spite of all the problems related to IPL management, in contrast to public supported sports event.