MUMBAI, India (Reuters) - Cricket is not the only sport in India — that is the message that Olympic officials in the country of 1.1 billion people are trying to get across.
Cricket became a national obsession following India’s surprise victory in the 1983 World Cup while interest in other sports dwindled for lack of success in the international arena.
India has the largest global television cricket audience but, with the world’s fastest growing major economy after China, is attracting interest from other spectator sports keen to tap into the market, including soccer, Formula One and golf.
Indian Olympic Association president Suresh Kalmadi believes the time has come for India to move on from being a one-sport country and expects the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in two years’ time to be the catalyst for the change.
The 2010 Games will be the first major, multi-discipline event that India has hosted since the Asian Games in 1982.
“This is a great incentive to promote Olympic sports in the country,” Kalmadi said. “We want to change (corporate) mindset through the Commonwealth Games.
“Unfortunately (funding from) the industry all goes to cricket. If they get one gold medal for the country, the kind of mileage the company will get will be considerably more than what they get in cricket.
“Hopefully then the private sector will come in a big way to support Olympic sports in the future.”
Kalmadi said money was the key to improving India’s dismal showing at Olympic Games since the decline of the national hockey team in the 1980s, due in part to a switch to artificial turf which favored power, speed and accuracy rather than deft stick-work.
This year, the eight-times Olympic hockey champions are in danger of missing the Games for the first time and need to win a qualifying tournament in Chile, which starts on Saturday, to get a ticket to Beijing.
Despite being the world’s second most populous nation, India has won only four individual medals in Olympic history — or six according to some record books.
Before a 1952 wrestling bronze, tennis bronze in 1996, weightlifting bronze in 2000 and a shooting silver four years ago, Norman Pritchard won two silvers on the athletics track in 1900.
Pritchard, born in Calcutta of English parents, is listed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as Indian but by many record books as English. His feat came 28 years before India officially competed in the Olympics.
Whichever way Indians look at it, the total is paltry for such a big nation.
“Every time after the Olympics, where we hardly get any medals, there is uproar in the parliament but after that pretty little is done,” Kalmadi said.
“So it is not only the federations who are responsible...a whole lot of people need to be involved.
“The sports budget is less than one percent of the total budget of the country. That’s nothing for a country of a billion. So you have to get in more money for sports.”
Kalmadi believes harnessing sport for economic and social growth is the way to overcome this challenge.
“We got votes in the Caribbean when we won the right to host the Commonwealth Games because many people said they were interested in coming to India because they see it as a business destination,” Kalmadi said.
Rising disposable incomes among India’s growing middle class make the country attractive to many sports looking to expand.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter dubbed India a “sleeping giant” crucial for the development of soccer in Asia, while IOC president Jacques Rogge was supportive of India’s ambition to host its first Olympics in 2020, saying the country had “great potential” and that a successful Commonwealth Games would strengthen the bid.
India will stage its first Formula One grand prix in New Delhi in 2010 and last year Indian businessman Vijay Mallya became co-owner of the Spyker F1 team which was renamed Force India.
This was after Narain Karthikeyan became the country’s first F1 driver in 2005, stoking ambitions in the fast lane among youngsters.
Britain will support India’s bid to stage the 2020 Games, London mayor Ken Livingstone, whose city hosts the 2012 edition, said in November.
London Olympics chiefs have promised coaching and other expert assistance for India’s Commonwealth Games, which Kalmadi said he was confident would be profitable and would pave the way for more such world-class, multi-discipline events in the country.
“Whatever money we get from the government, which is about 1,000 crore rupees (10 billion rupees, $354 million) for organizing the Games, we will return that money, raising it through sponsorship, television rights, merchandising and ticketing,” he said.
Editing by Clare Fallon