x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The conflict of interests

Given that F1 is a great example of what unbridled capitalism can achieve, groups have denounced the sport as divorced from India's realities.

The check-in staff of the Vijay Mallya-owned Kingfisher Airlines wear badges that say: Flying the flag for Force India. On board, you can buy Force India T-shirts, caps, coffee mugs and even a USB drive shaped like a Formula One car.

The Week, a popular magazine in Kerala and southern India, has a cover story headlined It's F1nally here!

It is almost as though the race to be held this weekend in Noida is the Golden Fleece.

That's one point of view. The other has been forcefully expressed by PT Usha, India's greatest-ever sportswoman, whose fourth place in the 400m hurdles - she missed out on a medal by 0.01 of a second - at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 represents the high point of the nation's meagre athletic history.

"I feel very bad because such hi-fi business has nothing to do with 99 per cent of Indians," she said earlier this week. "It is a criminal waste [of money]. First, Twenty20 cricket spoiled the spirit of Indian sports, and now here comes another avatar which will mostly attract corporate money, from those who rarely spend for sports promotion. Only God can save Indian sports."

It's not hard to see where she's coming from. The Buddh International Circuit was built at a cost of Rs 20 billion (Dh1.47bn) and corporate India has thrown its weight behind the race. The same corporate India has done next to nothing for Usha's athletics academy, an apathy shared by both the central and state governments.

The state government in Uttar Pradesh has bent over backwards to facilitate the circuit construction, and a group of farmers that used to own the land are planning a protest, alleging that the compensation they received was little short of daylight robbery.

Predictably, given that F1 is a great example of what unbridled capitalism can achieve, leftist groups and non-governmental organisations have rallied behind the farmers, denouncing the sport as one completely divorced from India's realities.

The international media has seen the obligatory juxtaposition between F1 prosperity and Indian poverty. An article in England's Daily Telegraph said: "One wonders at the wisdom of [Bernie] Ecclestone, Mallya and their ilk in arguing that India can prosper from the visit of F1 when its malnutrition rates approach those of Ethiopia, or when the cheapest £35 (Dh205) race-day tickets cost twice the monthly wage of a local cleaner."

The truth, as always, is somewhere in between. F1 in India is even more of an elitist sport than it is elsewhere. Its audience - expected to top 30 million this season - is almost completely urban, those able to subscribe to satellite television channels.

F1 has a history of champions who emerged from less than privileged backgrounds - Nigel Mansell and Michael Schumacher to name just two. But to expect that to happen in India, where 90 per cent of the population doesn't even have access to decent public transport let alone high-powered cars, is to believe in fairy tales.

Most champions get their first taste of speed from go-karts. In most Indian cities, four laps can set you back by at least Rs 100. Despite its niche appeal, F1 bosses are going all out, no doubt enticed by one of the region's fastest growing economies.

Sachin Tendulkar will be present on Sunday, as will a multitude of Bollywood stars. Mercedes plan a driving academy at the Buddh circuit, while Mallya has announced a 'one in a billion to drive F1' talent hunt, in conjunction with Mobil.

Uber-nationalists have seized on the absence of local flavour in the Force India team, but Mallya's logic cannot be faulted.

No marque is as clearly associated with a country as Ferrari, yet the Italians have a Spaniard, Fernando Alonso, and a Brazilian, Felipe Massa, driving the prancing horses.

F1 could not have chosen a better time to come to India. The cricket team has rebounded from the humiliations of the English summer with a 5-0 one-day series triumph, but the crowds to watch that were desperately disappointing.

India athletics, much to Usha's chagrin, is also in the doldrums.

The euphoria of 2010, when the women's 4x400m quartet won gold at both the Commonwealth and Asian games, has given way to acute embarrassment, with three of the women failing drug tests.

Dreams of Olympic gold remain as distant as ever.

Regardless of how Force India or Narain Karthikeyan - in the hopelessly outpaced Hispania Racing Tean car - perform this weekend, the 100,000 expected to turn up on Sunday will go home happy. But in the long run, if the common man is to share corporate India's enthusiasm for F1, there needs to be an iconic figure in the cockpit.

Even if Mallya's search unearths the next Fangio or Schumacher, other sports are unlikely to feel threatened. A youngster needs only bundled-up rags to dream of being the next Messi. A rubber ball and washing paddle can inspire Tendulkar imitations. F1, with its space-age gadgetry, is another world, especially in a country where a cart still means something drawn by a bullock.



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