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Cover Story

How the 1982 Asian games changed Delhi
The Asian games of 1982 was unique, for it altered for good the very structure and sprit of India’s capital city, writes Krishan Datta, Former Sports Editor of the Times Of India
Issue Date - 16/02/2012
Mega events like the Asian and Olympic Games are occasions when countries endeavour to showcase themselves internationally in more ways than one. With governments funding the prestigious contests and giving all other required assurances, host cities become the focus of the world for the fortnight the shows last. The 1982 Asian Games was one such occasion.

It was the second time that Delhi hosted the Games, 31 years after India’s Capital gave birth to the quadrennial multidiscipline event. The world had changed since the first Asian Games were held in 1951. Compared to the scale at which the 1982 Games were organised, the inaugural event was a garden party, momentous though the occasion no doubt was. The March 4-11, 1951 Games, inspired by the slogan “Play the Game in the Spirit of the Game,” coined by no less a person than Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru himself, was an 11-nation affair, with 489 athletes taking part. The 1982 show, in which an incredible 74 Asian and Asian Games records were broken, Delhi played host to 4,595 participants from 33 countries. Impressive new facilities were built. The huge Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium, and vélodrome near it, the centerpiece Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, and the Games Village and auditorium at Siri Fort, the Karni Singh shooting range at Tughlaqabad and the rowing facility near Jaipur, not to mention the flyovers in Delhi, came up in one-and-a-half years flat.

Till the 1982 Games the historic Siri Fort area was a forgotten wilderness and the place where the imposing Nehru Stadium now stands would be rendered a swampy waste during the rainy months. Delhi underwent an unbelievable transformation thanks to the 1982 Asian Games.

It was all a race against the clock. To cut a long story short, in the years after 1976 when India won the bid to stage the games, a lot of time was lost because of political upheavals. The long emergency years followed by the Congress being swept out of power by the Janata Party and then regained control before finally waking up to the fact that the country stood to lose face if it backed out of an international commitment like honouring its bid to stage the Asian Games no matter which political party was in control. Ideally, preparations for mega international sports events should be completed several months before they are staged so that trial runs can be staged by way of rehearsal, so to speak. I remember seeing painting and whitewash men at work in the cavernous Nehru Stadium barely a few days before the Games was to begin. But we have the unique knack of delaying things, for reasons not far to seek, and then patting ourselves on the back for completing the jobs at the last minute. It is like the big fat Indian weddings that somehow was organised in a rush no matter how much time there was to make arrangements in advance.

India had to showcase itself in 1982, and it did. Rajiv Gandhi, who later became the country’s Prime Minister, personally oversaw the Games’ preparations, gaining a lot of useful experience in the process. The Games took India a step forward, technologically speaking, since 1982 saw the advent of colour television in the country.

India still lived in the restricted world of license/permit Raj and ideas like liberalisation were far from our mind, although economic “tigers” were emerging in the east. But the welcome winds of change had started moving into the country. The 1982 Games broadened the country’s vision while it changed the face of New Delhi.

What is important to note is that in the tumultuous years of the late 1970s, India’s commitment to host the 1982 Asian Games had completely slipped out of the nation’s mind till over 200 Members of Parliament, at the initiative of Vijay Kumar Malhotra, signed a memorandum reminding the Morarji Desai-led Janata Party government about the matter. Desai gave the green signal on the condition that the organisers cut the coat according to the cloth available. If I can remember, the Desai, at a function in Parliament Annexe declared that his government would set aside Rs.220 million for the event. In present times, that would be a laughable sum. There were also other important members of his own cabinet, chiefly Chaudhary Charan Singh, who were opposed to the decision. Evidently with an eye on his agriculturist followers, largely in western Uttar Pradesh, he held the view that it would be better if the amount was spent on irrigation or welfare of farmers rather than on staging a sports event. Despite the opposition, the Asian Games Organising Committee (AGOC) was formed. But the crash of the Janata government (due to internal differences) proved a major setback to AGOC. It was dismantled.

When Indira Gandhi’s Congress party returned to power, it set up its own committee called the Asian Games Special Organising Committee (AGSOC) under Buta Singh. That was some quick politics behind the organisation of the Asian Games of 1982. The Congress party proved a point – the Asian Games was too important an event to be left in the hands of others. So why allow them to take credit for holding the event?

What the Games did to both the infrastructure of New Delhi and the image of India cannot be compared in words. The Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium, the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, the Games Village, the Siri Fort auditorium, the Karni Singh shooting range would probably have never existed had the 1982 Games not happened in Delhi. And the sight of the flyovers in Delhi, then, made the city feel like a truly international city! Delhi indeed underwent an unbelievable transformation – and it’s all thanks to the 1982 Asian Games!

Even in spirit the Games did a world of good to Indian hearts. Suddenly you felt as though India, which came 5th on the medals tally that year (with 13 Golds), stood a chance of beating the best the next time round. Though that never happened, the Games gave us youngsters of those days, a chance to be proud of – of our country, of our capital city and of our competence to host an international event successfully! But whatever said and done, the icing on the cake was the newly found city of ‘Delhi’ which was transformed into a world-class city with impeccable infrastructure, laid out in a record 23 months. From the handsome flyovers to sprawling stadiums and the Asiad village, from new roads to the mascot that will ever be remembered – Appu!


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