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16th October 2023

Dinesh Dhamija: Is sport in India about to explode?

Dinesh Dhamija


Now that the eyes of the cricket-loving world are turned to the country, as it hosts the World Cup – the biggest event in the sport’s calendar – there’s a new and different story to tell. This tournament is great, but it’s also more of the same. India has co-hosted the Cricket World Cup on three previous occasions (in 1987, 1996 and 2011) and is doing a great job this time around. This weekend India will play Pakistan for the first time on home soil for seven years in front of an estimated TV audience of half a billion people – that’s five times the Super Bowl!


These are phenomenal figures, but what interests me is the potential for a huge uplift outside cricket. With 1.45 billion people, it’s an anomaly that India produces so few sportspeople. Where are the athletes, the soccer players, the golfers, the swimmers, the cyclists, the boxers and the tennis players? India lacks both the centralised political system that drives millions of Chinese into sport and the wealth of funding available to young sporting Americans and Europeans. Change could be on its way: two pieces of news came to my attention this week that offer hope for the future.

First, the International Olympic Committee is about to hold a conference in India. The choice of venue is always important: It shows that the IOC is taking India’s bid for the 2036 Olympics seriously. All the other summer games up to 2032 are already taken. If India wins the games, this would be truly transformative. Massive amounts of funding would be channelled into developing India’s sportspeople over the next 13 years, bringing untold opportunities to those hundreds of millions of Indians who adore sport, but have so far lacked facilities and access. Narendra Modi is firmly behind the bid, just as he has supported the rapid and dramatic expansion of cricket in India. He recognises the multiple benefits in terms of health, community cohesion and national pride. I really hope it happens.

Second, my colleague David Nicholson, who helped research my latest book The Indian Century, competed in a triathlon in Goa last weekend. Triathlon is a relative novelty in India – Ironman 70.3 Goa only began in 2019 – but it attracted more than a thousand athletes. Goan Chief Minister Pramod Sawant sent the competitors on their way at 7am to swim 1.9km in the Arabian Sea, cycle 90km through the Goan countryside then run a half-marathon in the blazing heat next to Miramar beach in the state capital Panjim.

The race prompted both state and national press coverage, including an article on David and his son Samuel, who also took part, with David winning an award for coming second in his age group. “There was a fantastic buzz about the race,” David tells me from Goa. “The streets were filled with supporters, alongside reporters and press photographers. It was a carnival of sport, with athletes from more than 30 countries competing.”

I would love to see more events like this, as India takes its place among the world’s great sporting nations.

Dinesh Dhamija founded, built and sold online travel agency ebookers, before serving as a Member of the European Parliament. His latest book, The Indian Century, will be published in the Autumn.

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