Some 25 years ago, former Indian athlete Praveen Kumar was travelling by train through Punjab. At a station deep in the northern state, hundreds of people gathered outside his compartment. Young and old, men and women, all jostled with one another to reach him and touch his feet. He was taken aback. But he soon realised they were not adulating him for a gold medal showing at the Asian Games for discus throw; they were there to pay reverence to "Bheem". These were the days when Mahabharata would be telecast on Doordarshan and Praveen had acted as Bheem in the serial. Besides this, he had also worked in several Bollywood films.
Narrating this incident, Praveen spoke of how "disappointed" he was that in his native Punjab, everybody remembered him for the work he did as Bheem, but very few people remembered the Arjuna Award the athlete had won. Such was the power of showbiz.
When you consider Praveen's experience, it's not surprising that the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) opted for Bollywood superstar Salman Khan as brand ambassador for its Rio-bound Olympic contingent.
This is just a marketing gimmick. It may be recalled that a few years ago, some British women's hockey players had posed naked for a charity calendar. The 14 sportswomen from Lytham St Annes Hockey Club in Lancashire bared all to raise funds for the Lytham Sports Foundation.
But the IOA's choice of appointing Salman Khan has met with widespread criticism, with the first salvo being fired by Rio qualifier and Olympic bronze medal winning wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt. Milkha Singh followed suit by joining the "no-Salman" club. People have questioned Salman's credentials as a sportsperson. But surely, Salman is not supposed to play on the ground. His role as a brand or goodwill ambassador is to attract people's attention to Olympic sport. And, using his massive public appeal, try and get sponsors for Indian sport.
It may be recalled that even Saif Ali Khan is brand ambassador of Olympic Gold Quest until the Rio Games this August. I am neither a Bollywood loyalist nor a Salman or Saif fan. But I can say with confidence that both have mass following and the power to pull crowds. A fact that was acknowledged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, when he picked Salman along with Sachin Tendulkar, Priyanka Chopra and other public figures to support the government's "Swatch Bharat" mission. Back then, no questions were asked.
If the Praveen Kumar proved anything, it was that Bollywood sells better than Olympic sports in India. You may like it or lump it. But you can't deny it.
Often Indian athletes, especially those in Olympic disciplines, complain of lack of spectators and funds. If the likes of Salman can help turn it around, what is the harm in it? As Olympic champion Abhinav Bindra very rightly said, "If Salman Khan can promote Olympics, it means strategic sense. If Salman can actively boost Olympic sports, more power to him. If it is just for a day's publicity, then it is of no use."
Bollywood star Dharmendra was the first owner to buy a team during when the Pro-Wrestling League was announced. Olympian Geeta Phogat was the captain of Dharmendra's CDR Royals team from Punjab. The PWL also drafted in Navjot Singh Sidhu as a commentator for the PWL, in an attempt to attract fans. There was no campaign to oust either Dharmendra or Sidhu. This apart, can one ignore the contribution of Shah Rukh Khan's film Chak De India to Indian hockey? The title song of the movie still plays at almost every hockey competition in the country.
Yes, PT Usha and Milkha Singh are indeed legends. But with due regards to both, Salman, or for that matter any Bollywood biggie, has better penetration among Indian masses. And in any case, Usha will be in Rio in a much more responsible capacity. As coach to runner Tintu Luka, she would have no time leading up to the Games in August.
Moreover, in the coming three months, I am sure that Salman will get involved in road shows and functions that IOA may organise in connection with the Games. And, even in the presence of Indian Olympic hopefuls and former sporting greats, Salman's "jhatkas" and wisecracks will catch more eyeballs than encouraging words by the legends. But then, both are important for the Rio-bound athletes and Indian sport in general.
There are charges against Salman that by associating with IOA and the Olympics in general, he is only promoting his forthcoming film Sultan, in which he has played the role of a wrestler. But I think his critics have already made his job easier by generating buzz around the movie and publicising it for him. Incidentally, former top wrestler Jagdish Kaliraman had guided Salman for his role as a wrestler for the movie, while another former wrestler Kirpa Shanker had spent almost a year in Mumbai to train fellow Bollywood star Aamir Khan for his role in the movie Dangal.
And moreover, the IOA did not even pick Salman. He was the choice of IOA's marketing agency IOS Sports & Entertainment. If it makes marketing sense to IOS, so be it.
However, having said that, the hit-and-run court case against Salman Khan has meant that there is a negative sentiment against the star. The court has given him a clean chit, but it's difficult to change public perception. As a damage control exercise, the IOA and ISO have already announced that they are willing to include more Olympic icons — such as Anju George, PT Usha, etc. The sooner they do it, the better.