New Delhi: The Indian Olympic contingent was given a warm send-off on Monday, but it was Bollywood actor and IOA's Goodwill Ambassador Salman Khan who turned out to be the cynosure of all eyes, instead of the 20-odd Rio-bound athletes present on the occasion.
A record contingent of 121 athletes, including 54 women, will represent India at the upcoming sporting extravaganza in the Brazilian city known for its sand and sea.
"The contingent this time is one third more than last time and this itself proves that Indian athletes are improving. It is not just about winning medals but qualifying to participate in the Olympics itself is a huge thing," Indian Olympic Association president N Ramachandran said.
Besides Ramachandran and his colleagues from IOA secretary general Rajiv Mehta and treasurer Anil Khanna, other dignitaries present were Sports Minister Vijay Goel, Sports secretary Rajiv Yadav, SAI DG Injeti Srinivas, Chief-de-Mission Rakesh Gupta and Deputy Chief-de-Mission Anandeshwar Pandey.
And there was, of course, Salman accompanied by music maestro AR Rahman, who is also IOA's Goodwill Ambassador.
Tennis ace Sania Mirza, shuttlers PV Sindu and Kidambi Srikanth, talented wrestlers Vinesh Phogat, Babita and Sandeep
Tomar, archer Dipa Karmakar and paddler Manika Batra were some of the well-known athletes present on the occasion.
Salman said, "People have a lot of hope from this contingent, I wish you guys all the very best. I am here from Bombay to give you a send-off and respect that you deserve. I know how difficult it is to be a sportsperson and I know it because I couldn't become one.
"I didn't have that much strength to become a sportsman but you guys have it and that's why you guys have qualified. Go there and give your best. Please don't come early."
Salman was controversially appointed as Goodwill Ambassador, which left the country's sporting fraternity divided.
During the ceremony, Salman and Rahman gave the athletes flower bouquets with the cine star indulging in a bit of trademark banter.
Admirers lined up the passage leading to the hotel as they awaited Salman's arrival. Once in, a lot of hotel staff were seen excitedly trying to get a glimpse of Salman and incessantly clicking photographs. A few were heard whispering to each other that they had "cancelled" their offs to see the actor in person.
Sports Minister Goel lauded the efforts of the athletes and support staff.
"We are sending 121 athletes this time, which is the highest contingent till now. This contingent is one third more than last year's. We are sending players in 15 disciplines. Players have worked very hard and even the coaches are worked well. We have provided them all the facilities under the vision of Prime Minister which is 'khelo aur khelne do'," Goel said.
Rahman, who performed a song that matched the occasion, said, "Once upon a time I thought that it was impossible task for an Indian to get an Oscar or a Grammy but time has proved that it was possible to win and it is a testimony that anything can be achieved."
Ramachandran spoke about the importance of sufficient funds in running sports.
"We have very quickly realised for the IOA to be truly independent it must have fund and towards this IOA has done an association with IOS and the various commercial firms who have come forward to support the cause of the sports person in India.
"I was shocked when I was told that the brand value of IOA is something like 500 crores. It just blew my mind. We have started in a very small way for the IOA to be truely independent financially. We need the government's facilities which are spread all over the country through the Sports Authority of India (SAI), for our athletes to train and also to go abroad and train with better equipment.
"Technology has changed for the athletes today. It is not what used to be 10 years ago and there is an old saying that
if you don't change then people will change you so our view is to change, change for the better and to change with time."
Rashesh Shah, Chairman & CEO, Edelweiss Group, which is a sponsor of IOA, said "Olympics is a real opportunity in a way of our saying thank you to the athletes. We have given Rs 1 crore insurance cover from our insurance company to each and every athlete."
Shah said it is a way of supporting them because they are truly the brand ambassadors of India as they have shown excellence.
"Also, in view of brand association Olympics is so prestigious, it is also very beneficial. We think sports and business have a lot of common elements," Shah said.