By Gokul Krishnamoorthy
India has sent its largest ever contingent of 119 athletes to the Tokyo Olympics. We have a Silver already and are hoping for more.
In 2016, the nation sent 117 athletes to Rio. They returned with two medals. Shuttler PV Sindhu won a Silver and wrestler Sakshi Malik won Bronze. The other 115 did not win medals. But they too gave it their all.
Back to 2021. Bhavani Devi became the first Indian fencer to qualify for the Olympics. In a Rin detergent commercial ahead of the Games, she told us of her journey. Her mother had to make exceptional sacrifices, going against the words of a world that believed her priorities were wrong. Bhavani did her mother proud by reaching where she has. When she sent out a Tweet apologising to the nation after crashing out of the Tokyo Games, she drew praise from several quarters.
Brand Rin had linked Bhavani’s journey with the brand even before the Games. The ad ended saying, “It’s time to shine.” Even if she did not win metal, she did shine. Thanks to Rin, some of us know her and her story. How many others in the Indian contingent would we know, if they do not go on to win?
Also in 2021, the Indian Olympic Association announced an unprecedented prize purse for medal winners, starting with Rs.75 lakh for the Gold winners. The reward for Silver winners is Rs.40 lakh and for Bronze winners, Rs.25 lakh each. For their coaches, it is Rs.12.5 lakh, Rs.10 lakh and Rs. 7.5 lakh for Gold, Silver and Bronze respectively. Besides rewards for sports federations and such, it was also recommended that each of the athletes representing India be given a princely sum of Rs.1 lakh.
Apart from this, several state governments have already announced cash rewards worth crores for medal winners from their soil. Again graded by the colour of the medal they win.
So from the IOA alone, a Gold winner would be rewarded Rs.75 lakh, while Bhavani Devi would take home Rs.1 lakh as her cash reward. This is the first time an Indian qualified in her sport at the world’s biggest celebration of sports. But that does not matter – it is the medal that counts.
Reward or Incentive?
Every nation seems to be offering medal ‘bonuses’. Australia reportedly offers US$15,000 for Gold and $7,000 for Bronze. Singapore is reportedly offering US $737,000 for Gold and $184,000 to an Olympics Bronze medal winner (Source: CNBC). So maybe there is merit in such a bonus. But there is certainly merit in considering the alternative, if one cedes that the Olympian’s drive doesn’t stem from potential riches alone.
Is the money awarded to medal winners a reward or an incentive? When it is announced before the Games, it seems like an incentive. If it is intended to be an incentive, we seem to be missing a point – is money the primary motivation for an Olympian? Or is a place in sporting history and national pride the moving force?
Is money an automatic byproduct of success on this world stage? Going by the number of winners we can boast of, they are chased down by brands and command a premium in the endorsement market. They are celebrated by the rulers of their states, each competing to outdo the rest. An Olympic Gold winner will not need the money as much as the unknown members of the contingent who also played to win. Riches will find their way to medal winners in more ways than one.
There is a school of thought that believes, with good reason, that all this money should be ploughed back to improving sports infrastructure in smaller towns, from where many of the athletes representing the nation seem to hail. Maybe the funds will help uncover more of them, and maybe they will bring home more medals. But let us for the sake of this deliberation stick to the theme of rewarding athletes.
As a motivator, what works better? Individual rewards or those for the team? This is a much-debated topic in management. But here the context is very different. When an athlete carries the national flag, the hearts of all those who bear allegiance to it flutter. To hear one’s national anthem play out in honour of the athlete on the podium is a moment of pride for an entire nation. This shared sense of pride should manifest in the rewards for medals.
What if, for every medal won by an Indian, every member of the contingent gets an equal cash reward? Shared team rewards seem to be far more potent motivators, for those who have spent most of their lives sweating and training to bring their nation glory. Can brand India make such a decisive statement? That it is ‘Team India’ in Paris, circa 2024?
Such a shift would also be in line with the spirit of the Olympic Games. After all, it is the founder of the Olympic Games Baron Pierre de Coubertin who said, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”
(The author is founder and curator, www.ClutterCutters.in and an independent content consultant.)