Oriental Magic
March 20, 1996
Treacherous Triumph
May 29, 1996

Olympian Efforts

THE sponsorship potential of the Indian Olympic contingent to Atlanta seems to be going up by the day. Four very core American corporate symbols, Citibank, AT&T, Reebok and Nike, are discovering for us the virtues that our athletes might possess and which we forget for every four years till each subsequent Olympics makes us sit up for a while and chew on our chances of climbing on the podium. The last time it happened was with the hockey gold in the West-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

There is no boycott this time but our athletes are going to wear Nike practice gear, the hockey contingent will be in Reebok mode for their league matches, and all will be heeled with $1,000 from AT&T for sundry expenses plus a telephone calling card that will let them call home free if they get too home-sick, assuming that their folks out here have a connection. If they don’t, they could show some entrepreneurial spirit and hive off the time at half rate or look up some international pen-pal magazine in the player’s reception area and try building a relationship. But how this gear is going to affect their performance is something that July will tell us.

Of course, the Indian Olympic Assosciation (IOA) has never had it so good. It doesn’t have to write memos to the government asking for funds to deck the players out with individual kits. It has Citibank doing it. Who with tremendous wisdom made Nike design the kits and bought them for a sum of Rs 5 lakh. Says Ashoke Dutta, vice-president, Citibank: “Our brief to Nike for the kit was that it shouldn’t be something that just has a designer look. It should embrace performance.”

Citibank itself has been right in the thick of generating funds for the IOA. It started off with the launch of its Olympic Visacard, a charge-and-contribute programme, in which 25 per cent of the bank’s earning on each card is transferred to the IOA. The bank already has around 40,000 such cards and by July their number is going to double.

Complementing this effort is a deposit-and-contribute scheme where the bank will pitch in Rs 100 for the team on every Rs 1 lakh deposited with it by domestic or NRI banking customers. This apart from the amount the customer might feel like contributing. If all goes to plan, Citibank’s 60,000 NRI base plus the earnings from the card might fill up the IOA’s coffers by a minimum of Rs 1.3 crore. Says a confident Dutta: “Like all Citibank efforts we will be overshooting the figure in all probability.” Incidentally, this contribution shall be apart from the licence fee of Rs 25 lakh which Citibank had to pay IOA for associating itself with the Olympic effort. Says Randhir Singh, secretary-general of the IOA: “We will not be looking to the Government for any financial support this time around.”

The other big sponsor of the Indian team, AT&T, has linked itself with the Olympic effort to provide, in the words of Virat Bhatia, director, corporate affairs, “our brand with the unique platform that the games present.” Apart from cash incentives for individual and team achievements at the game—$20,000 for a team gold and $6,000 for an individual gold—the corporation is offering families of the athletes that make it to the team an opportunity to visit Atlanta during the games. Says Bhatia: “We will fly them in free of cost and host them in the homes of AT&T employees in Atlanta.” Though the selection process of the families hasn’t been finalised yet, Bhatia intends making it as transparent as possible.

Financial benefits to the IOA though shall mainly pour in through the $1 contribution that the corporation’s making on every five-minute collect call made from India to the US using the bilingual Direct Namaskar Seva between April and August. The multinational also pitched in with $25,000 in April to help the IOA host a conference of Asian Olympic Committee chiefs.

While the company is sponsoring 18 national teams around the world to the games, it is using the mileage from the event to do a credit rating of customers in Gujarat and Maharashtra where it is launching its cellular network. The telecommunication giant has also roped in Vijay Amritraj to address special seminars for corporate clients on topics like fitness and stamina. Says Bhatia: “You don’t have to do a sell on the Olympic rings. Besides, by being the first in sponsoring, you not only enhance your own brand image but block others too.”

Something that Reebok and Nike haven’t quite been able to do to each other. While Reebok International has recently signed a year-long deal with the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) to outfit all teams that the IHF fields in international competitions, the players in turn are supposed to wear Reebok gear. But, strangely, IHF President K.P.S. Gill denied having signed any deal with Reebok at a press conference. Says Siddharta Verma, vice-president at Reebok: “I don’t know what the confusion is about. The team is already sporting Reebok gear. And coach Cedric D’Souza has sent me different sizes of the players going for the Australia tour.” Nike, interestingly, is getting mileage by supplying kits despite the fact that Citibank’s footing the bill.

The games themselves are going to be the biggest ever. With an estimated television audience of four billion, 16,500 athletes, 20,000 media personnel and two million spectators in Atlanta from over 197 countries, the 1996 Olympics spend will be close to $1.7 billion. While AT&T and Coca Cola are the biggest sponsors internationally, Coke hasn’t involved itself with the Indian effort. Says a company spokeman: “We are only into cricket in India. We also don’t like to sponsor individual teams. Since we are present in more than 200 countries, sponsoring just one team could create complications for us.” Also absent were the other big spenders in Indian sport, ITC, Reliance and MRF Tyres.

But what’s appalling is that, in spite of the many dollars flowing in, the daily allowance for the hockey players is still $20. Says Dhanraj Pillay, star Indian forward: “We would like to earn money like the cricketers.” Another member of the contingent, unwilling to be quoted, said: “What are we going to do with all these kits? Direct financial support is what we need. We have many of these kits.”

But what is a milestone is that companies have for the first time come forward to help the Indian Olympic effort. Says Kuruvilla Abraham, director, TnQ Communications Pvt Ltd, agents for Citibank: “Nobody came in earlier to back a team that has historically never done well. I think our efforts have to be appreciated in that light. When I represented India in yachting we used to get $3 a day. I think we have come a long way.”

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