Vimal Sankar ©ITG

It is July 25, 2036. After months of sweltering heat and dry weather, the state of Gujarat is relishing the pleasant dip in temperatures.

All the roads leading to the 132,000 capacity Narendra Modi Stadium are beefed up with security and decorations as the world watches on.

A colourful and vibrant setting depicting the unique cultural heritage of a diverse nation is on display, along with thousands of Modi placards - if he is still in power - gazing at you.

As the first country enters the largest stadium in the world for the Olympic Opening Ceremony, fireworks are set off in the background and the crowd erupts.

Picture perfect? Maybe, or maybe not. The host of the 2036 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games is yet to be decided.

Along with India, at least ten countries are in discussions with the International Olympic Committee for the hosting rights. And if India does become successful, Ahmedabad in Gujarat is mooted as a potential host city, including staging the Opening Ceremony.

In December last year, Indian Sports Minister Anurag Thakur described 2036 as “the right time to host the Games”.

“If India is making news in every sector from manufacturing to services, then why not in sports?” he said.

With the IOC Session in Mumbai set to take place from October 15 to 17 this year, Thakur claimed it is the right opportunity to make a case for the Games.

Could the Narendra Modi Stadium host an Olympic Opening Ceremony in 2036? ©Getty Images
Could the Narendra Modi Stadium host an Olympic Opening Ceremony in 2036? ©Getty Images

Under the current right wing and pro-Hindutva Bharatiya Janata Party, India is due to host the 18th G20 summit in New Delhi a month before the Session, providing the perfect setting to expand on Thakur’s “why not in sports” comment.

At least that is what the Government will hope for. Financially, there will be billions of dollars in costs.

The BJP proudly boasts about its role in making the sub-continent the world’s fifth-largest national economy, and bankrolling the Games with private funding will be a concept that is easy to visualise.

This is why it was never a case of “can India host the Games?” but more about “should they?”

Since its first participation at the Summer Olympics at Paris 1900, India has won 35 medals in total, including 10 golds.

Among them, only two have been individual victories - shooter Abhinav Bindra at Beijing 2008 and javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra at Tokyo 2020. The other eight titles have all come in men’s hockey.

Since the first Olympic Games of the modern era in 1896, when Greece hosted the prestigious event, the host nation has managed to finish at least in the top 10 except at London 1948, Mexico City 1968, Montreal 1976, Athens 2004 and Rio 2016.

In 1976, Canada finished 27th on the overall table - the lowest for an Olympic host nation at the Summer Games.

As far as overall standings are concerned, a 17th place finish among 26 participating nations at Paris 1900 was the best result for the sub-continent. Post-independence, finishing 22nd at London 1948 among 59 nations has been the best result. At Tokyo 2020, India won seven medals, the best-ever haul for the country at the Summer Games in a single edition, finishing 48th out of 206 teams.

Now, it comes down to what kind of statement does India want to make come 2036? Should the largest “democracy” in the world aim to be a sporting nation or a sports-hosting nation?

Neeraj Chopra is one of only two individual Olympic champions from India ©Getty Images
Neeraj Chopra is one of only two individual Olympic champions from India ©Getty Images

Assuming that those working behind the scenes to make 2036 a reality are targeting the sporting nation narrative, India will have to finish 38 places better than at Tokyo 2020 to make it to the top 10. Is that a realistic target?

If so, are Indian athletes being supported by the governing bodies to realise that dream? Sports lawyer and activist Rahul Mehra doesn’t think so.

“I think we have to be clear about why the country wants to host the Olympic Games,” Mehra, who has fought for more than a decade for better sports governance in India, said.

“When a country achieves quite substantially over a period of time at the Games, they try and bid for the Games in one of their cities.

“China prepared for 20 to 25 years before they bid for the 2008 Games. So have various other countries. They all have been at the top and then they try to make the bid and make the statement - ‘look here, we are among the top sporting nations of the world’.

“Look at our journey in sport. We are pathetic. This is not because we don’t have any talent. It is simply because there are people who play all sorts of games outside the sporting arena. 

“Every system which is put in place is actually against the interest of sport. It is highly inefficient or corrupt. A person becomes an administrator for all the wrong reasons. They do everything but promote sport and develop sport across the nation.”

It is safe to say that the Indian Olympic Association has never been - in the past or present - a symbol of good governance. The National Olympic Committee was facing problems as recently as last year, forcing the IOC to intervene with a “final warning”.

While it is too early to judge the new team of administrators led by President PT Usha, a Member of Parliament nominated by the Modi-led Government, the political indulgence in Indian sport seems to have increased now more than ever.

Beleaguered BJP member Brijbhushan Sharan Singh has led the Wrestling Federation of India, with an Oversight Committee currently investigating sexual harassment allegations against him by the country’s top wrestlers.

Another BJP politician, Kalyan Chaubey, is at the helm of the All India Football Federation. BJP MP Anil Jain was elected unopposed as President of the All Indian Tennis Association in 2020 and is set to be in charge until 2024.

Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, also of the BJP, was re-elected unopposed for a four-year term as President of the Badminton Association of India last year.

There are a few more names but the Government has effectively ensured that BJP members or their cronies are calling the shots at most of the prominent National Federations in the country.

Interestingly, the Indian National Congress was in power when India last hosted a major multi-sport event - the New Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games.

Drowning in controversies and corruption charges, the event saw India’s international reputation go for a toss.

Thirteen years later, only the names seem to have changed. A fresh set of politicians are overseeing sport in the country as India is preparing to host the IOC Session and bid for the Games. Only time will tell what they are planning to achieve and how they end up doing it.

Delhi staged the Commonwealth Games in 2010  ©Getty Images
Delhi staged the Commonwealth Games in 2010  ©Getty Images

“We successfully bid for the Commonwealth Games,” Mehra said. “Just look at what we did after that.

“We did everything that was wrong in the run-up and during the Games. A toilet paper was allegedly sold for 4,000 rupees.

“Since 2010 my litigation has led to funding being dropped with the majority of sports federations derecognised and suspended at different points in time. The courts have been shouting for a long time about everything wrong happening in Indian sports administration. We need reforms.

“Now, with this situation, we are bidding for the Olympic Games. There are two takeaways from this.

“There is zero learning from the past. From 2010, it was understood that we are incapable of hosting these Games for the simple reason that there is widespread corruption among the sports bodies.

“Sports administrators invested in the system are conflicted or corrupt. They shouldn’t be doing what they are doing. We have tried absolutely nothing to correct that system. But let’s assume that Indian sports administration is thriving and therefore everything will fall in place.

“The Prime Minister right now is the most powerful this country has had for a very long period of time. And he has thought that this is the time to go ahead and his second in command (Amit Shah, Minister of Home Affairs) is there to ensure that his vision is achieved.

“Now there is nothing in the world that can stop us from doing it. It is basically translating the will of the man at the top. He wants to have another feather in his cap so he can say ‘we did it during our time’.

“Even in the IOA reforms that have happened, they have managed to get their own men at the top.

“The IOA is an easy picking for them to muscle in and push in their agenda. The point is whether India is ready for it or whether Indian sports is ready for it. The answer is a big no.

“We have two individual gold medals from all these years in the Olympics. For a country that is unable to do that consistently, do we want to embarrass ourselves? Let’s build this culture first and bring in reforms.

“Maybe 2050 is the time. But politicians are politicians. It is more of a personal ambition of some people.

“Look at what we have done. We had two FIFA Under-17 World Cups. Boys and girls could not win a single match. And India spent so much money. The Olympic Games, costing billions of dollars, will be the same. All the new facilities that we need to build. Look at how we have used Commonwealth Games venues.

An Indian supporter back his country behind the Olympic Rings ©Getty Images
An Indian supporter back his country behind the Olympic Rings ©Getty Images

“What have they done to that after 2010? It is the same for the Olympics. Once this Games is done, all these facilities that we may make for billions of dollars of public money is going to be in shambles.

“It is not about BJP or Congress. They are all the same. For them it is something that they can abuse to further their political objectives.”

While India will do everything in its power to convince the IOC in Mumbai, the Session could also be one of the most-politically charged in recent history.

With the question of Russia and Ukraine at Paris 2024 hanging over President Thomas Bach and co, the chances are that all other matters might be treated as secondary. Even during the G20 meetings in India so far, the war in Ukraine has been a dominant topic.

India has remained neutral on the invasion while partnerships in the field of sports between the country and Russia have been developing steadily.

Recently, the weightlifting federations from both countries came to an agreement “to implement a joint sports development programme” and more deals are expected in the future.

The two countries remain the best of friends, with Russia still the largest arms supplier for India. Oil exports from Moscow to New Delhi have also increased. Modi’s India has abstained from voting on United Nations resolutions condemning the war in Ukraine.

Last year, Russian Sports Minister Oleg Matytsin said his country’s “specialists will be happy to help in organising the Olympic Games in India”. Meanwhile, the IOC is keen on India and sees the country as a key strategic partner moving forward.

While geopolitics and financial prowess seem to aid India’s Olympic ambitions, many other factors could play a crucial role in a winning bid according to Olympic champion Bindra.

“It is possible that India’s geopolitical relationships could have boosted its Olympic ambitions,” he said.

“Hosting and participating in international events such as the G20 summit can help boost a country’s profile on the global stage and enhance its reputation as a competent and capable nation.

“Furthermore, strong geopolitical relationships can also lead to increased cooperation and collaboration with other countries in the realm of sports.

“This can include joint training programmes, sporting exchanges and hosting international events, all of which can help build up India’s sports infrastructure and talent pool.

“However, it is important to note that while geopolitical relationships can play a role in India’s Olympic ambitions, there are many other factors that are equally if not more important, such as funding, sports infrastructure, talent development programmes, and more.

Nita Ambani plays a key role in many Indian sports and is an International Olympic Committee member ©Getty Images
Nita Ambani plays a key role in many Indian sports and is an International Olympic Committee member ©Getty Images

“Ultimately, achieving Olympic success requires a multi-faceted approach that takes into account a wide range of factors, including both domestic and international.”

Nita Ambani - the wife of business behemoth Mukesh Ambani who is the richest man in Asia - has been vocal about an Indian bid for a multi-sport event ever since she became an IOC member in 2016.

Mrs Ambani, who is the face of many Indian sports at the moment, backed by her wealthy husband, has invested millions in sport already.

Last year, she led the delegation as India won the hosting rights for the Session. Reliance, the company owned by the Ambanis, are principal partners of the IOA and aims to help athletes prepare for major events.

“There has also been an increase in private investment in sport in India, with various corporate entities sponsoring athletes and teams,” Bindra added.

“Additionally, there has been a focus on infrastructure development, with the Government investing in the construction of world-class sports facilities.

“Indians are also consuming sport much more than before which is a sign of good things to come in the near future and will help fulfil our nation’s sporting ambitions.

“It’s time we leverage our population dynamics and, as a developing country, this is a natural ambition to have.

“As for the renewed positivity regarding 2036, it is possible that it is due to a combination of factors.

“The Government’s initiatives and investments in sports are likely to have a long-term impact and may lead to improved performances in the future.

“Additionally, there may be a sense of optimism regarding India’s growing sporting culture, with more and more people taking up sport and showing an interest in the Olympics.”

But even with the billions of the Ambanis, is the Olympic Games a feasible dream? While there might be one or two venues capable of holding major events at a potential Games, some reports that emerged during the National Games, also held in Modi’s beloved Gujarat, suggest otherwise.

From unsafe athletics tracks to triathlon being shifted from the water in the Sabarmati River due to pollution, it shot to fame for all the wrong reasons. Other venues faced issues mid-competition.

Meanwhile, the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi, a venue that has hosted the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games, has a track that is sinking.

The IOC’s emphasis on sustainability and its plan to select future hosts with already built stadiums and facilities might therefore trouble the Indian bid.

Even if that was overlooked, will taxpayers be happy that their money is being invested in stadiums that are going to rust and sink once the Games are over, going by previous evidence? The estimated and final cost of staging the Olympics in Tokyo has spiralled out of control. By 2036, this is only going to be higher.

“I am not aware of the exact plans with respect to hosting the 2036 Games in India,” Bindra said.

“I understand that hosting the Olympics is a massive undertaking that requires significant investment in infrastructure, including stadiums, arenas, transportation and accommodation facilities.

“In recent years, the IOC has placed a greater emphasis on sustainability and reducing the carbon footprint of the Olympics.

Abhinav Bindra won an Olympic shooting gold medal for India  ©Getty Images
Abhinav Bindra won an Olympic shooting gold medal for India  ©Getty Images

“This includes a focus on using renewable energy, reducing waste and promoting environmentally friendly transportation options.

“The IOC has also encouraged host cities to use existing facilities whenever possible, rather than building new ones, to reduce the environmental impact of the Games.

“In terms of India’s existing infrastructure, it would depend on the specific venues and facilities required for hosting the Olympics.

“India has experience in hosting large sporting events, having hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, the FIH Men’s Hockey World Cup and the South Asian Games.

“Later this year, India will also host the Cricket World Cup. Of course, hosting the Olympics, the world’s biggest sporting event, would be a much larger undertaking and would require significant investment and planning.”

Even if plans for infrastructure and facilities fall into place, hosting the Games has never really been about just the sport.

When Tokyo held the Games in 1964, it was also about showcasing how the nation had recovered from the brutal atomic bombings during the Second World War. 

In Berlin in 1936, Hitler wanted to demonstrate Aryan superiority to the rest of the world and how the Germans had economically recovered after the effects of the First World War.

More recently in Beijing in 2008, the Chinese wanted to flex their economic and sporting progress.

Such is the nature of the Olympics that politics is barely kept out of it. Right, left, or neutral, the quadrennial celebration has witnessed plenty of politicians who have used it to showcase the soft power of their country and achieve geopolitical goals.

India is no different. For all the ambition and talk of hosting the Games, not one Indian authority - from the IOA to the Sports Ministry - wanted to comment on their plans for it.

The secrecy is understandable under the current BJP regime, which is not a fan of being questioned or criticised.

The image-conscious Modi Government’s reaction to the BBC documentary on the Gujarat riots of 2002 is a case in point. Come October, there will be more clarity on a lot of things within India’s Olympic Movement.

From an optimistic point of view, let us hope that for once, development of sport and athletes is at the forefront of the plans. But as they say in football, it’s the hope that kills you.

This article first appeared in the insidethegames magazine Spring Edition 2023, which you can read here.