Modi’s plan for India to bid for Olympics tinged with political overtones

Courtesy of AUDA, Ahmedabad
An artist’s image of the sports complex now under construction in Ahmedabad in western India.
The Yomiuri Shimbun

NEW DELHI — The ruling party of India has formulated a plan to bid to host the 2036 Summer Olympics in the western state of Gujarat.

The fact that Gujarat is also the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who hopes to enhance the country’s global image through sports, has observers looking skeptically at the proposal as having overly political overtones.

“To host the Olympics is a long-cherished wish of the people of India,” a high-ranking member of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said enthusiastically in an interview with the Yomiuri Shimbun on Dec. 8. “With the leadership of the prime minister, we will certainly make it happen.”

In the state assembly election held this month in Gujarat, where Modi served as chief minister from 2001 to 2014, the BJP made a campaign pledge to continue constructing a world-class sports complex in preparation for a bid for the 2036 Olympics.

Modi visited the state repeatedly before the election, and the party won a resounding victory, taking 85% of the seats.

Since Modi’s stint as chief minister, the state has boldly embarked on the development of industrial parks and distribution centers. In the central city of Ahmedabad, sections of the “Metro” rapid transit system that runs both underground and on elevated tracks have been successively put into operation since 2019. Construction of a high-speed railroad linking Ahmedabad and the commercial hub of Mumbai is also underway.

The cricket stadium in Ahmedabad was rebuilt to accommodate 130,000 people, making it one of the largest stadiums in the world. In February 2021, it was renamed Narendra Modi Stadium. If an Olympic bid is successful, an idea being discussed is to use the stadium as the venue for the opening ceremony and athletics events.

A plan was drawn up for the construction of a 6.3 billion-rupee (about ¥10 billion) sports complex on an 11-hectare site near the stadium, which will include tennis courts, a swimming pool, indoor arenas and the like.

Home Minister Amit Shah, a former BJP president and close Modi aide, participated in a groundbreaking ceremony for the complex in May this year. It is scheduled for completion by the end of October 2024.

General election strategy

From this month, India is serving for the first time as chair of the Group of 20 (G-20) leading economies for the coming year. In a speech in August this year, Modi pledged that India would aim to join the group of advanced countries by 2047. The bid to host the Olympics is seen as part of efforts to give the country added influence in the international community.

A general election is slated for the spring of 2024, on which Modi will rest his hopes of being reelected to a third consecutive term.

Political pundit Adnan Farooqui, a close follower of Indian politics, said that as sports serves as an important tool to maintain popular support, Modi’s Olympic ambitions are aimed at broadening his support base.

The host of a Summer Olympics is obligated to accept delegations of athletes and spectators from all over the world, and therefore needs a certain degree of accommodations and transportation infrastructure already in place. As such, the hosts are generally chosen from major cities that are well-known globally.

It would be an unusual development for a remote city or area like the state of Gujarat to put forward a bid, notwithstanding the fact that it is the prime minister’s home turf. Skepticism is building. The major daily The Indian Express commented, “At this juncture, it is important to take a step back and ask if India should be a sports-playing nation or merely a sports-hosting destination.”

Raising competitiveness

As of 2019, one-tenth of India’s population was living below the poverty line of $2.15 (¥290) per day as defined by the World Bank. There are strong concerns that a government expenditure for a huge project would add to the financial burden on the people.

On top of that, India won only one gold medal and seven medals overall at last year’s Tokyo Olympics, making raising the competitiveness of its athletes yet another issue to be addressed.

At the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, India was originally barred from participating in the wake of a corruption scandal involving officials of the Indian Olympic Committee. The suspension was lifted during the Games, but the three Indian athletes were listed under independent status at the time of the opening ceremony.

With the corruption scandal surrounding the Tokyo Olympics rocking the sports world, India is likely to be questioned on whether it can push forward with a clean bidding campaign.

“The bid for the Olympics is Modi’s vision,” a senior BJP official said.

However, the whole scheme is still a mere proposal made independently by a political party in a local election. One Indian Olympic Committee official suggested that New Delhi or another big city would be a better potential choice.

Modi himself has not made a clear statement on an Olympic bid, and can be expected in the days ahead to carefully assess how the notion is accepted both at home and abroad.