Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Saksham Pedal Delhi - A Pioneering Initiative

During the entire time I've been in India, I've been asked the same question over and over and over again, "Do you ever think about moving back to the US and working in sports over there?" To be honest, yes, I do think about this from time to time as the US sports industry is incredibly structured (something that I appreciate and can thrive within), the US soccer industry is growing at a rapid pace, and US Soccer & MLS are two organizations that have taken up a big place in my heart. All that being said, my typical response to this question is, "Yes but I'm happy to be in India where I have a genuine opportunity to be a pioneer within the sports industry."

This is a sentiment that I had before I got on the plane to move to India back in 2009 and it is a sentiment that holds true for me today in 2017.  With the right amount of passion, creativity, persistence and resilience anyone can launch an impactful and meaningful initiative in India - one that has the ability to pioneer a part of the ever evolving Indian sports landscape.  I first experienced this back in October 2011 which is when, after months of effort, we announced a partnership with FC Barcelona creating the first year-round training program in India run by an international club.  This opened up the door for many other clubs to enter and set up training programs in the country including Arsenal FC, Manchester United, Boca Juniors, Inter Milan and PSG.

Since 2011, I've experienced and have been fortunate to have been one of the creators of many initiatives that have been considered pioneering efforts that have gone on to help transform some part of the industry. Whether it was launching FICCI Goal - India's first football specific conference or setting up the LFC-DSK Academy which was the only Premier League branded residential Academy in Asia at the time - there have been so many unique opportunities to pave new paths in this country's sports landscape over the years.

This past weekend I witnessed another pioneering initiative. A close friend of mine set up an agency called Meraki that is all about paving new paths.  I had worked with this group two years ago when we brought Pele to Delhi and they helped us build a charity event supporting Olympic athletes on their way to Rio leveraging Pele's divine presence as way to generate more donations for this cause. The event was a success and I remember being impressed with whole Meraki team and their passion for sport.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago and the founder of Meraki, Ajit Ravindran, mentioned during a phone call that he would be in Delhi around the same time I was there as he was organizing a Cyclothon.  The way he made it sound, I assumed that it would be a small corporate team-building event but then he asked if I wanted to attend it on Sunday morning as a guest of Meraki.  I said, "Yes," without thinking and then realized that it starts at 7:00am and is taking place at JLN Stadium which is quite a distance from where my in-laws stay in Gurgaon. But a Yes is a Yes and I mentally prepared myself for an early Sunday morning wake up and long drive to the stadium. To make things better though, I convinced my wife and in-laws to join me at the event so I'd have some company.

The day before the event, I picked up the VIP passes and could tell just by looking at the fancy credentials and invitations that this would be a much bigger experience than I had originally assumed. Plus, underneath everything, I didn't think that Ajit would request that I wake up so early and trek all the way down to JLN Stadium just to drink tea and watch some out of shape employees cycle around until they get tired. And I purposely (or lazily) chose not to research the event by going to their website or asking the normal questions as I wanted to be pleasantly surprised.

After a late night session of Shah-Malhautra Family Poker, we finally went to bed on Saturday night only to wake up a couple hours later to get ready for the event.  We got out of the house by 6:45am and arrived at the stadium at 7:15am as traffic was light. I assumed that we would pull up and there would only be some cyclists and event staff around at this hour, but I was completely wrong. After parking, we made the few minute walk towards the cyclothon starting gate and heard heart pounding DJ music ahead.  As we turned the corner towards the holding area, we were blown away by the sight of thousands of cyclists all in uniform and another hundred or so people watching from the grandstand.

We flashed our VIP passes and were escorted to the front row of the grandstand where we sat in silence taking in the scene of a sea of normal Delhiites all happily cycling the 45km route which goes through some of the more scenic parts of the nation's capital.  What was going through my mind was how much this scene resembles what one experiences during the Delhi half marathon which annually takes place at the same location and is now considered one of the premier sporting events in the country. Also, what was going through my mind was the fact that it is extraordinary that so many non-athletes were so inclined to wake up early, drive to JLN Stadium and cycle around which is impressive knowing how hard it was for us to do the same and all we had to do was eat a breakfast buffet and watch other people get in shape.

After watching cyclists and eating free food for an hour or so, we were further surprised to see  Bollywood Actor Farhan Akhtar on stage giving out awards.  He spoke about the importance of healthy living and initiatives like this Cyclothon that create platforms for people to be active in a fun environment. If it wasn't the tasty idlis and dosas in the VIP buffet that won my in-laws over and justified the early wake-up call, it was definitely the sight of one of Bollywood's most famous actors just a few metres away from where we were sitting.

After spending a few minutes congratulating Ajit and his team for creating an incredible event, we left the stadium and had a wonderful sightseeing afternoon as the weather was cool and traffic manageable which are two luxuries in a city like Delhi.

I was really proud of everyone involved with this event as it clearly was a pioneering initiative.  I'm sure Vivek and Anil Singh (Procam founders) were laughed at by many when they declared that they would make marathons a staple part of the Indian sports landscape back in 2005 but now well-organized, high-profile, filled-to-capacity marathons are not only taking place all across the country but they have probably impacted the lives of over millions of Indians who have either participated in them or have had family members transform their lives through marathon participation (I've run in 3 Procam organized marathons since I've moved to India).

I am more than confident that Ajit and his team will be able to build on the momentum of this successful maiden cyclothon to make organised cycling events for amateurs something of a norm within the industry.  And while I believe that there are still ample opportunities to pioneer an initiative within sports industries across the globe, there is just something unique about India that feels like with the right vision, energy, hard work, belief and momentum an individual or small organization can actually pioneer a movement.

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