The city, for reasons that are not very clear, enjoys the reputation of being ‘sports crazy’. The reputation, one suspects, is partly reflected in the sheer gall of the BCCI to fix the final match of the cricket tri-series on a weekday in Calcutta. In which other city, after all, can the BCCI be sure of having a packed house even on a weekday'
It is also possible that the reputation has grown due to images of a packed Eden Gardens witnessing a one-day international or pictures of 80,000 boisterous spectators flocking to the Salt Lake stadium to watch a domestic football encounter. They do not tell the full story though.
A distinct social and gender divide separates the two venues. While the elite, the women and the upper middle classes appear dutifully at Eden, often paying exorbitant prices for the dubious pleasure of ‘being there’, usually the city’s hoi polloi are left to watch the more physically demanding sport of football at Salt Lake stadium.
Women and the well-to-do are seldom to be seen watching football matches, at Salt Lake stadium or elsewhere, unlike not just the West but also several other cities in the country.
Even more remarkably, come to think of it, national or international ‘sporting’ encounters in the city are actually rather rare. International cricket matches can be witnessed on barely two or three days in a year at Eden Gardens, while the Salt Lake stadium possibly hosts football matches on fewer than 30 days during that period.
Even state-level swimming competitions at Subhas Sarobar or a table tennis tournament at Netaji Indoor rarely take up more than a fortnight.
The sports-crazy city is surely not making much use of even its existing infrastructure, let alone make an effort to add to them, or working hard enough to live up to the sobriquet.
Both Salt Lake stadium and Netaji Indoor are actually used far more extensively for non-sporting events. Jewellery and gold exhibitions, beauty pageants to furniture and tourism promotion fairs are all allowed in Netaji Indoor. Similarly, the Salt Lake stadium is used for everything from weddings to religious discourses, political jamboree to musical extravaganza.
Indeed, Calcutta does not even seem interested in promoting sports. Virtually every sports infrastructure in the city, be it the South Club (10 grass courts and eight clay courts for tennis), the polo ground or the 18-hole golf course is not just pre-Left Front but of British vintage.
Indeed, the ‘latest’ stadium in the city, Salt Lake, is 20 years old and was completed in January 1984. Since the foundation stone was laid in June 1976, the Left Front, which came to power in 1977 and has remained in the saddle since, cannot take any real credit for it either. Netaji Indoor and the Rabindra Sarobar stadia are even older.
Calcutta, therefore, shows no enthusiasm to bid for the national games, let alone host the Asian Games or the Commonwealth Games.
It is too much of a hassle, the infrastructure is poor, administrators are very few and most of the sports associations are starved of funds… The arguments are more than a few.
In contrast, Hyderabad has built up sufficient infrastructure to not only host the National Games and the Afro-Asian Games but also to claim that it would be ready to host the Olympics in about a decade-and-a-half. New Delhi has now bagged the bid to host the Commonwealth Games in 2010. But our eastern metropolis figures nowhere in the picture.
City planners here need to wake up to the potential of sports as industry, commerce, entertainment, money-spinner and employment generator. In the western world, the sports industry has helped kick-start and sustain several economic activities.
Manufacture of sports goods and sportswear, retailing sports memorabilia, broadcasting, event management and sponsorship, publications, tour and travel are just some of the areas that have grown because of sports. Eateries and legalised on-line betting have also received a fillip. There are lessons we need to learn from such experiences. Who knows, the Left Front government might just discover that sports also has the potential of providing more sustainable employment!
The Asian Games, two decades ago, gave a pronounced fillip to the development of the national capital. Roads, flyovers, the Asiad village, hotels and stadia came up in record time and gave a boost to several sectors of the industry. The infrastructure also helped existing sports associations, universities, educational institutions and the entire service sector.
Calcutta must make a beginning. Public or private investment in sports infrastructure now will be a good investment for the future.