View: India needs an Olympic fan base

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The world’s attention is on the Tokyo Olympics. More than any other event, the Olympic Games symbolise an inclusive and global movement. More nations (205) will take part this year than the total member countries of the United Nations (193). This year’s Games will feature 50 disciplines across 33 sports, including new ones like sport climbing and surfing.

In 2012, when India came back with six medals from London, doubling our previous record, the nation was proud. In the next edition at Rio in 2016, our feelings returned to despair, as India won just two medals. As our biggest contingent ever of 120 athletes compete on this global stage, India’s expectations are high.

Many Indian athletes today are ranked at the top of their respective disciplines. Full credit to their dedication, hard work and talent. Credit also goes to sports administrations that have taken multiple steps to support them, including setting up robust infrastructure — from discovering potential champions to giving them the right training and support. Multiple private organisations have also contributed with programmes and sponsorships to support our athletes.

Indian athletics never had an organised army of fans. Football clubs in India, especially East Bengal and Mohun Bagan in Kolkata, have a history of organised fan bases. Supporters filling up stadiums, cheering players on, celebrating with gusto, remain committed to their teams irrespective of ups and downs. Indian cricket’s ‘Bharat Army’ is 1.4 million-strong, many members based outside the country. This fan base ensures that hundreds of fans will be present at any Team India cricket event anywhere across the globe.

Starting July 23, India’s Olympics team needs the support of 1.3 billion Indians — a set of advocates who will support the athletes, cheer them irrespective of whether they are bringing the medals home or failing despite their best efforts. We need not just one, but multiple organised fan clubs for Indian athletics.

The OIympics will be over on August 8. The next few weeks will be about celebrating the champions who come back with glory. All athletes will go back to their grind of training, conditioning and more training. Unlike cricket or football that has a calendar of events all around the year, for a lot of our athletes, it will be a long wait till the next big events — the 2022 Asian Games and Commonwealth Games, and the Sydney Olympics in 2024. Our athletes need the fan base to be with them all throughout, and not just during the big sporting events.

Fans are not just important for the athletes, but also for holding up the mirror to the entire sporting ecosystem. In April 2021, when 12 of the richest and most successful football clubs in Europe decided to break away and form European Super League (ESL), a huge pushback came from the fans. ESL collapsed within a week even before it began, due to the fans of respective clubs.

Fans of the Indian OIympics contingent can be the collective conscience that holds organisations accountable, and ensure that they remain true to the spirit and ideals of sport. Let’s all wish that the India flies in Tokyo, with we, the 1.3 billion, the wind beneath their wings.

The writer is trustee, Mobile Premier League (MPL) Sports Foundation, the principal partner of the Indian Olympics contingent to Tokyo

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