Could India Host an Impressive Olympics?

India and China. China and India.

Whenever discussion turns to the New World Order, these neighboring giants are always mentioned in the same breath as the up-and-comers. I understand the arguments, but remain deeply skeptical about the prospects for both countries, though for vastly different reasons.

With the Beijing 2008 Olympics drawing to a close, one must concede that China has managed to pull off a fabulously successful advertisement for itself, even though its ugly authoritarianism and environmental shamefulness remained on plain view throughout. So the question nags: Could India hold an Olympics that would flatter, rather than embarrass the nation? I, for one, seriously doubt it.

The Olympics requires the host nation to provide three basic elements: infrastructure, architecture, pageantry. This is no mean feat; just ask the organizers of Athens 2004 and Atlanta 1996. Greece failed in two of the three, just managing to save face, largely as a result of the world’s extremely low expectations. The United States failed across the board.

Infrastructure development takes vision and planning – not areas in which India has distinguished itself. Delhi is the only metro in the country which appears to spend on infrastructure in anything but an ad hoc, purely corruption-driven way – not that Delhi’s version of forethought has made it even remotely the world-class city it purports to be. Sure, it is difficult to remake old cities – although that is, essentially, what Beijing has done – but even its built-from-scratch, nouveaux riches commercial neighbor, Gurgaon, is an almost perfect study in tastelessness and dysfunction.

One of India’s most challenging infrastructural problems, from an international public relations point of view, would be to develop habits and systems of internationally acceptable public hygiene. I suspect that most first-time visitors to India will be under-impressed by the filth and noise of their surroundings, and the television cameras will have a difficult time avoiding the blight of omnipresent garbage, which flows through the streets of India the way water flows in riverbanks.

Perhaps India, like Greece, might shine in the spectacle, even if they would fail in the organizational aspects of building proper infrastructure to host the athletes and visitors in style and comfort. From classical dance to Bollywood, India shines in artistic performance. But would this kind of close-up oriented presentation captivate the world when executed on the scale of an Opening Ceremonies? Perhaps not. Have you ever attended a major pop concert in India (or involving India performers traveling abroad, for that matter)? They are unwatchably cheesy. A.R. Rahman may write world-class music, and Adnan Sami and Asha Bholse may be stars of Indian popular song, but their live concerts are hideously amateurish affairs. They are often accompanied by filmy dancing which, though so attractive on the screen, comes off as a bad joke when the scale of the movements are dwarfed by the live venue.

Architecture is an extremely important element in the Olympic mix if, as with China, the aim is to establish one’s prestige and announce one’s global intentions. It expresses a country’s ambition, accomplishment, sense of style, sophistication, and ability to produce tangible outcomes suited to a major occasion. Most of the world sees the host nation only via satellite feed, and images of the Olympic venues are the ubiquitous “context-establishing shots” which begin the coverage of almost every event. A country can do no better advertising for itself when hosting an Olympics than provide monumental, attractive architecture. This has certainly been a key part of China’s strategy – and it has worked.

China commissioned outrageously wonderful buildings from teams of architects and landscape architects from Switzerland, Australia, France, Germany, the U.K., and China. The superb “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium, the “Water Cube” National Swimming Center, and Olympic Forest Park are the glamorous face of a spectacular Olympics. The subsidiary venue structures each have a degree of architectural merit, even if they are not as jaw-droppingly innovative as the main sites, and the 1,600 unit Athlete’s Village has received LEED “gold” certification for its sustainable construction techniques and energy efficiency. In addition, Beijing has undertaken an impressive array of non-competition-hosting buildings as part of its Olympic facelift, including a spectacular National Theater, a Digital Media Center, a Convention Center, and television network complex.

Now consider India, which has hardly built a worthy piece of major architecture since Independence – I can think of only two possible candidates, one of which was designed by a Canadian, the other by a Frenchman. A couple years ago, a friend sent me this idiotic Business Week slide presentation, touting the greatness of contemporary Indian architecture. I sent him back a note congratulating him on the excellent joke. Awkwardly, it turned out not to be a joke, but an earnest (if blinkered) piece of jingoistic bragging.

Are there great Indian architects working today? Surely there must be. But what are they building? And would insular, foreigner-resenting India consider commissioning high-profile Olympic buildings from international architects? Never. Indian national pride would never allow it to do what even xenophobic China was able to do – what the entire rest of the world does: commission world class architecture from throughout the world.

Then there is the little problem of paying for the infrastructure and new architecture. After the politicians and bureaucrats have siphoned-off their monumental bribes and contractors have been selected on the basis of kick-backs rather than ability, will the bid-winners have sufficient talent and remaining resources to deliver quality buildings, on time? There is certainly plenty of past experience on which to hazard a prediction.

I have tremendous affection for India, and a like degree of antipathy for China. But there is no question which country has announced its presence on the world stage with panache and which can never hope to do so. “I love my India” as much as the next guy, but not because it has a prayer of achieving greatness in my lifetime.


15 Responses to “Could India Host an Impressive Olympics?”

  1. 1 mbjesq 21 August 2008 at 1:45 pm

    This post drew a bit of interesting commentary on, where it was cross-posted.

    Some expressed the view that India would be ready to host a high-quality Olympic Games in 15 – 20 years. I am doubtful, since I expect the myth of India’s ascension will be proven false long before 15 years has passed. Because India insists on developing along mid-twentieth century lines, rather than taking advantage of its twenty-first century opportunities, I expect India to be much further behind in the game of global prominence in twenty years than it currently finds itself. If it couldn’t do it now, I seriously doubt it would be able to do it in the future.

    Chaitanya raised an excellent point: “The 2010 Delhi Commonwealth games will be India’s litmus test. If these games are successful, we’ll have something positive to build on.” Here’s my response.

    The Commonwealth Games are, indeed, an interesting small-scale test-case. With the games more than two years away, it’s a bit too early to say how progress is going and I won’t prejudge the situation. After-all, Athens pulled off its Olympics by the skin of its teeth after it looked like they were never even going to complete construction of the venues.

    The proposed venue designs, though not particularly distinguished, appear from the published drawings to be a significant improvement on any other post-colonial construction in Delhi. And it’s about time that the horrendous Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium got a face lift, even if it is just a slightly elaborated re-do of China’s Foshan Stadium (not being used in the Olympics) by the same German structural engineering firm. I haven’t been able to ascertain who the architects were for any of the projects. In 2004, the Delhi Development Authority announced plans to have an “All-India design competition,” but it’s not clear to me if that ever occurred. Any idea?

    Construction seems to be starting behind schedule on some of the venues, and that at least one of the contracts – for development of the Athletes’ Village – was given on a single bid, which is generally not a good sign.

    The Athletes’ Village, being constructed on the previously off-limits Yamuna flood-plane, has sparked controversy among environmentalists, who charge that approval of the development amid the hoopla of preparing for the Commonwealth Games has shortsightedly opened the door to full exploitation of this environmentally sensitive area. The charge seems to be buttressed by the fact that the environmental approvals were passed through furtive government channels with an absolute minimum of transparency, so as to avoid publicity. Delhi High Court Justice Gita Mittal, writing recently for the court in an advisory opinion agrees: “This amounts to illegal conversion of a natural resource and gift of nature for private ownership and commercial gains.”

    After the games, the 1,168 luxury apartments of the Village will provide a supply of new housing stock to the city. In 2006, more than 11,000 slum dwellings were dismantled on the very same ground after the Delhi High Court the cited encroachment on the Yamuna flood-plane. Whatever one may think of slum demolition, the double-standard is a bit gaudy.

    In typical Indian metro fashion, the solution to the infrastructural problem of ground transportation for the games is the construction of flyovers, which are expensive and generally boast a high ratio of kick-back to contract price, even if they represent a generally unsustainable and myopic solution to the problem of traffic congestion. Many of the planned flyovers are mired in approvals problems, with the developers claiming they have all necessary environmental clearances and officials saying they have not.

    Plans drawn-up by the Delhi Police to incarcerate beggars during the games has also drawn fire.

    According to a recent study by the Hindustan Times, the incompetence and tardiness of the DDA has rendered the timely development of desired new hotels all-but-impossible, leading to an estimated shortfall of 40,000 rooms for the games.

    On the plus-side, 82 roads around the CWG venues are scheduled to get facelifts – and some will even get cycling lanes!

    The organizing committee and Delhi government clearly understand what needs to be done to pull off the games. More than Rs. 7,000 crore has already been earmarked for the infrastructure, architecture, and operational details. That’s a hell of a lot of money. Now, let’s see how well they spend it.

  2. 2 smita 21 August 2008 at 8:54 pm


    While many of the points you raise are quite valid, I have to ask: Why would anyone want to host the Olympics?

    Long gone is the myth of these games promoting international goodwill and fellowship through shared wonder at the power of human potential through sport. From the dysfunctional Olympic torch relay (remember how they dashed from warehouse to truck to avoid protesters in SF?) to Russia’s invasion of Georgia while Vladimir Putin exchanged smalltalk with George W. Bush at the opening ceremonies, there’s hardly been an overflowing of human fellowship and international camaraderie.

    And the sports! From doping to underage gymnasts to trying to prevent Oscar Pistorius from participating because his two prosthetic legs were thought to give him a technical advantage, there seems little left in the Olympics that’s really about the human spirit or physical prowess. It’s all about speed-enhancing swimsuits and a pool built just right so the waves don’t interfere with the swimmers’ strokes. It’s about American track coaches kvetching that Jamaican athletes train in American colleges but take their medals home to Jamaica.

    It’s a great spectacle created just to mesmerize us so we can spend more on wares being hawked and think less about the things that matter. It’s the ultimate smoke and fire show of the Great and Powerful Oz (buy all 5 of the collectible coke cans while you’re at it) and pay no attention to the man behind the curtain (or the two elderly women sentenced to a year’s “re-education through labor” for the grave crime of applying for a permit to protest the demolition of their homes.)

    I would be appalled if India were to try to host the Olympics before the government could claim — truthfully — that every child was receiving a good education, all people could count on physical, economic, and food security, and environment was being cared for and protected.

    The “low estimate” for those opening ceremonies was $8,000 per second. Imagine if that level of commitment, creativity, and resources was applied to any of India’s problems.

    India can’t host “an impressive Olympics” not because they lack the architects but because they have too many far more important things to do first.

    So there :P

  3. 3 Bol Delhi 24 August 2008 at 2:42 am

    India can’t work like China. Decision making is easy in China with almost no opposition from people. A small change in India cause a huge public outrage(mostly politics driven). People don’t flow rules, govt don’t enforce laws. Situation is bad.

    But from where I see, it can only get better from here (and we actually are at slow pace). All hopes in Delhi CWG in 2010, whether it is a success or failure it is surely going to bring about a change in India as far as infrastructure is concerned.

  4. 4 mbjesq 24 August 2008 at 9:27 am


    I couldn’t agree more. There is no reason India should be hosting an Olympic Games, for all the reasons you give.

    The question of whether it could, and do so successfully, is quite a different matter. The question is simply a way of measuring the aspirations and assertions of the “India Shining” materialists against a hypothetical that has some immediacy of context.

    So I say that India shouldn’t because it has far greater and graver priorities, and that it probably couldn’t because its democracy and highly touted economic development are, in fact, both dysfunctional.


  5. 5 mbjesq 24 August 2008 at 9:39 am


    I certainly don’t want India to work like China. Hell, I don’t even want China to work like China!

    While China is a repressive authoritarian regime, I think you give the people of democratic India way too much credit. Complacency, not protest, is the dominant political attitude. Our politicians steal from us and put their personal interests over the public good? “Vat to do?” The failure to meet the obvious needs of the country is a problem of the failure of democratic institutions in India, not the exercise of them.

    You are not alone in seeing that “it will only get better.” Certainly, more-and-more money will flow, in the near-term, into the Indian economy. But in addressing fundamental problems of poverty and environment, or achieving gains relative to the rest of the world, I find it impossible to share your prognosis. And in the long-run, I think the current development path will be ruinous for India.

    Feel-good jingoism and unsustainable materialism, in which India specializes these days, rarely help to achieve long-range national objectives. If you have any doubts, just ask the Americans, who are watching their world dominance disappear for just these reasons.



  6. 6 smita 24 August 2008 at 11:26 am


    I have to agree. As long as the majority of Indians pursue the “me and mine first” ideology and perceive their responsibilities as ending at their front gate, it would be impossible for India to manage something like the Olympics in any way nearing impressive.

    But I think it might be possible for Indians to fix many of these problems – lack of civic responsibility, bureaucracy and corruption – and still not be able to host an impressive Olympics.

    In fact, I think some of these changes are already taking root and spreading. In my hometown a few citizen leaders took up the effort to ban the ubiquitous plastic bags that were clogging up the lake and then took it a step further to put trash receptacles around town and hired people to sweep up the stuff that doesn’t make it into those cans. Some of them have been working for years to fight the noise pollution from the obnoxious loudspeakers broadcasting religious ceremonies.

    And though it is not yet much used, the fact that legislation like the Right to Information Act was passed in the first place is a tribute to the incredible efforts of thousands of people to clean up our governance as well.

    There’s obviously much more to be done to get the message through to more than a billion people and undo centuries of bad habits. And certainly our current course is ruinous. But I’m hopeful that India will, in the next 20 years, see the kind of citizen engagement that helped reduce the power of the political party machines, set up the public university systems, and empowered regulatory agencies like the FDA in the US.

    Do you think this was purely a function of the “puritan work ethic” of the US or can it be learned in other cultures as citizens wake out of the torpor of passiveness and realize the status quo is not acceptable and it is up to them to change it?


  7. 7 abe 12 January 2009 at 9:45 pm

    hye.. ngh wat pe? ley brknln??

  8. 8 abe 12 January 2009 at 9:47 pm

    hye mdm.. tyms up..

  9. 9 Passion 23 December 2009 at 10:43 am

    I am an optimist, but even I do not believe that India would be ready to host the olypmics in the next half a centruy.

    But there are two parts of your pos tthat I disagree with:

    First India is not averse to employing non-Indian architects: Chandigarh the world’s largest planned city was designed by a French architect.
    This city is also the ONLY reason that I have not completely given up hope on the infurating mess that is Indian infrastructure, and the only reason that I believe that there is any hope for urban Indian infrastructure.

    And secondly the corruption arguement is redundant since both China and India were ranked equally high on the corruption index at the time that Beijing hosted the olympics

  10. 10 mbjesq 23 December 2009 at 12:22 pm


    Good points, both.

    I suppose the question about whether India would commission foreign architects for something as high-profile as the Olympics is something we’ll just have to wait (for quite a while) to see.

    I suspect that totalitarianism has a mitigating effect on the ability of corruption to derail massive, deadline-driven infrastructure projects. This could explain why, while having similar corruption perception index rankings, China could pull-off something like the Olympics in such spectacular fashion while India is struggling to be ready for the Commonwealth Games.


  11. 11 jockey 27 March 2010 at 11:40 am

    you never talked about pageantry

  12. 12 mbjesq 27 March 2010 at 7:15 pm


    I think the sixth paragraph covers pageantry, no?


  13. 13 smita 21 August 2010 at 10:12 am


    Sadly India seems to be rising to the occasion to bear out your dour predictions.

    The Commonwealth Games were to be India’s answer to Beijing’s Olympics. But now they are calling them the crumbling games.

    And this after they’ve been industriously tearing down slums and slum schools and sweeping them under the carpet so everyone could bask in the glory of India rising.

    If I sound bitter, it’s because I am.

  14. 14 Jeff 30 November 2010 at 7:24 pm

    With India’s “world-class” hosting of Commonwealth Games, Olympics will be easy…

    I will be right back…

    I’m back, after laughing nonstop for 20 minutes.

  15. 15 Jeff 30 November 2010 at 7:26 pm

    Suresh Kalmadi said India would be able to host a “world-class” Olympics…

    I will be right back…

    I’m back, after rolling on the floor laughing for 20 minutes…

    India is so silly… I pity India.

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