Salman Khan goodwill ambassador at Rio Olympics: What is the fuss about

Salman Khan
At a time when no event in India appears to be free of controversy, it is not often that I react to a development with surprise. But let me admit that in the appointment of actor Salman Khan as the goodwill ambassador of the Rio Olympics, I was taken aback.

On paper, the move seems to be a good one - a Bollywood heart-throb, who is also an ace swimmer, body-builder and fitness freak. He brings with him a huge fan following that is expected to track the Rio Olympics closely, now that he is a part of it.

For a sporting event that ranks nowhere next to the popularity of cricket in India, its a great way, say some, to lift its brand value; to get the eyeballs and sponsorships. My response to this is yes and no.

Yes; because the Olympics does require all support it can get and no because the key stakeholders of the game - sportspeople - appear to have been left out in the process.

While the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), which announced the appointment over the weekend, did not get into the specifics of the role, TV debates have let the cat out of the bag. Khan, as the goodwill ambassador of the Indian contingent at the Rio Olympics, will most likely accompany the squad at the opening ceremony besides canvassing for the games in its run-up. It is unclear whether Khan will be the flag-bearer during the opening ceremony.  The broad consensus is no since that is typically the preserve of a sportsperson.

But his appointment has clearly left the sports fraternity divided. Never before have we had a Bollywood celebrity representing the Indian squad at the Olympics, that has clearly shocked most sportspeople. Their anger appears justified if viewed from this prism.

As wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt said in his angry tweet soon after the announcement on Saturday (23 April) - "Were there no sportspeople that we opted for a Bollywood actor as goodwill ambassador?"

PT Usha,Milkha Singh jaise bade sports star hai jinhone kathin samay me desh ke liye mehnat ki. Khel ke kshetra me Es ambassador ne Kya kiya

— Yogeshwar Dutt (@DuttYogi) April 23, 2016
"One can go and promote one's movie anywhere," he tweeted. "But Olympics is not a place for movie promotions."

Khan has a film titled Sultan, which dwells on the life of a wrestler, releasing later this year. The sports fraternity was quick to associate this film with the appointment. While Khan, the IOA and his managers have said nothing to that effect, critics have argued that this could have been in the superstar's mind while taking up the goodwill ambassadorship.

It is an open secret that Bollywood celebrities tend to do anything when their movies near release. It is viewed as a sure-shot formula to success. Bollywood celebrities need the crowds to throng the movie halls what better way than to stay in the news somehow to ensure just that, say independent observers.

Former hockey player Viren Rasquinha was quick to assess this when he tweeted on April 25: "I want to be the brand ambassador for Housefull 3."

Sports legend Milka Singh among the more vocal critics of the IOA's decision said, "I am of the view that our sportspersons — be those from shooting, athletics, volleyball or other sports — are the real ambassadors of India who would represent the country in the Olympics. Still, if we had to pick an ambassador, it could have been from the sporting arena."

The argument presented by some is that none of India's sportspeople apart from cricketers evoke that kind of media or fan frenzy. Tennis player Sania Mirza, shooter Abhinav Bindra and badminton ace Saina Nehwal while popular names are limited in their appeal, they argue. So what was the next best option? A Bollywood celebrity, they reason.

Some sportspeople seem to be coming around to this idea: Bindra himself tweeted on April 24 saying: "Dear@BeingSalmanKhan, am sure you will use your tremendous goodwill to help Olympic Sport and Olympic athletes in their pursuit towards excellence. Congratulations on being appointed ambassador of the Indian Olympic team!"

Dear @BeingSalmanKhan , am sure you will use your tremendous goodwill to help Indian Olympic Sport and Olympic athletes (cont..)

— Abhinav Bindra (@Abhinav_Bindra) April 24, 2016

In their pursuit towards excellence. Congratulations on being appointed ambassador of the Indian Olympic Team! @BeingSalmanKhan Cont.

— Abhinav Bindra (@Abhinav_Bindra) April 24, 2016

An absolute honour which comes with great responsibility ! @BeingSalmanKhan

— Abhinav Bindra (@Abhinav_Bindra) April 24, 2016
Boxer Mary Kom said, "It hasn’t happened before, it’s a good thing for the athletes. It’s good for us to have a brand ambassador like him."

Chess champion Vishwanathan Anand added, "If the things that the sports people need are addressed, then there is no conflict in having non-sports people participate. In fact, we want everyone to get involved."

The interesting bit is that Khan's appointment has set a precedent. The 50-year-old actor, not immune to controversy, seems to be gamely going along as goodwill ambassador. He said: "The intention is to get people to go to stadiums and watch their heroes (who are not cricketers) play. Olympics doesn't get the viewership it deserves because we don't watch it as much as cricket."

With the IOA contemplating to rope in personalities from the cricketing and music worlds as goodwill ambassadors, who knows the gamble - of popularising the Olympics - may just pay off.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel