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India's latest engineering goal: create Olympians

Steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal is underwriting an ambitious push to put India on the map after decades of Olympic underachievement.

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But the performance prompted steel magnate Mittal to action. In an effort to pick up where the India's Olympic development had always faltered – the leap from promising talent to Olympic contender – he established the Mittal Champions Trust.

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The goal is to "put India on the medals grid" in the 2012 London Games by identifying India's best young athletes and giving them the money to travel the world in search of the best competition and coaches.

Boxer Akhil Kumar says he owes the trust everything. After suffering a serious injury to his right hand, "my dreams were over," says the 2006 Commonwealth Games gold medalist. In the past, perhaps they would have been.

But the trust flew him to a specialist in South Africa and paid for two surgeries, as well as the rehabilitation that has followed. "The Mittal Champions Trust gave me new life," he says. "What Mittal does is beyond expectation."

Khade says simply: "We get whatever we want."

Former Olympic swimmer Hakimuddin Habibulla says this is a revolution for Indian sport. "I was always told I couldn't make a career out of swimming, so I had to study, and it was very difficult to combine both," says the 2000 Olympian.

"I couldn't afford to train abroad," he adds, so he became a software engineer. Today, Khade does not need to make that choice. When the date of his board exams recently clashed with the world championships, Khade went to the world championships. There, he qualified for the Beijing Olympics. Yet his real goal is to stay in the sport at least another four years and medal at the 2012 London Games.

"This is what was unimaginable to us even a couple of years in the past," says Mr. Habibulla, who has seen his national records eclipsed by Khade. "It has opened the eyes of many people as to what things are achievable if you have the support."

This includes the government of India, he says. "Funds like the Mittal Champions Trust create a positive pressure on the whole system," says Habibulla, who has left his job as a software engineer to become an agent for athletes, including Khade.

IOA secretary-general Singh agrees. "Everyone is waking up," he says. "The economic growth of India is changing the thinking."

New pipeline: 800,000 sport clubs

As evidence of the government's increased emphasis on sports, he points to the IOA's plans to establish 800,000 sports clubs in villages throughout India and to build a 150-acre national Olympic training center.

Until then, the Sports Authority of India's national training center in Patiala is an attempt to improve the conditions for elite Indian athletes in the interim. Within a converted palace of dark woods and crystal chandeliers, judo dojos and fencing pistes sit upon marble floors in what were once the bedrooms of the maharaja's 364 wives.

Habibulla, too, has seen positive signs, with the government more responsive to Khade's needs. "Things are heading in the right direction," he says.

India's top contenders for medals in Beijing

Archery: Mangal Singh Champia, a member of India's three-member team that won gold at the World Cup in Turkey this spring.

Boxing: Vijender Singh, who beat the 2004 Olympic champion in May, and Akhil Kumar (see article).

Shooting: Ganga Narang and Abhinav Bindra, both ranked in the Top 10 in the world. Also, 2004 silver medalist Rajyavardhan Rathore and 2006 World Champion Manavjit Singh Sandhu.

Tennis: Reunited doubles partners Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes.

Compiled by Corinne Chronopoulos. Sources: News reports, Indian Olympic Association, iloveindia.com.

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