The ‘ArcelorMittal Orbit’ is a flight of fancy that arose from a fit of bravado – a product of using time and circumstance wisely

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

Posted: Fri, Jul 20 2012. 1:15 AM IST

Its genesis is serendipitous enough to be the stuff of Shakespearean farce. London’s motormouth mayor Boris Johnson runs into steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal in a cloakroom during the 2009 World Economic Forum. Johnson corners Mittal, whom he is meeting for the first time, and describes his plan for a giant erection at the centre of the 2012 Olympic village to give it some extra oomph. The conversation lasts 45 seconds, at the end of which Mittal promises to donate steel for the monolith. He ends up funding £19.6 million (around Rs. 168 crore) of the £22.7million cost of what would become the ArcelorMittal Orbit.

This piece of information—widely publicized on the Orbit website—fascinated me because it is an example of a Sanskrit phrase I have been hearing all my life: samayam sandharpam (time and circumstance). The phrase is usually used in the context of asking for something. When I wanted to ask my grandfather for a special treat, my grandmother would advise me to ask, “depending on the samayamand sandharpam”, which alludes to time, place, the people involved, mood, circumstance and context. Mayor Johnson used samayam andsandharpam to his benefit when he requested Mittal to donate steel for an Olympic edifice.

Size matters: Mittal spent around Rs 168 crore for the 377ft Orbit outside the Olympic Park. The sculpture has received scathing criticism in London. (Photo by Steve Rose/Getty Images)

Size matters: Mittal spent around Rs. 168 crore for the 377ft Orbit outside the Olympic Park. The sculpture has received scathing criticism in London. (Photo by Steve Rose/Getty Images)

The more interesting question is this: How can India take advantage of the Mittal family connection to the Olympics? In 2005, Mittal’s son-in-law, Amit Bhatia, spearheaded the Mittal Champions Trust (MCT) with an initial funding of $9 million (around Rs. 50 crore now). Its goal is “to put India firmly on the Olympic medal grid” by supporting some 40 Indian athletes with training and infrastructure. Bhatia wants to improve India’s abysmal Olympic record. At the MCT, a panel of eminent sportspeople hand-picks sporting talent from across the country and identifies the gaps that must be bridged in order to take potential champions to the next level. “MCT then bridges these gaps,” says Bhatia. “We do whatever it takes to ensure that each of our champions has access to the same infrastructure, coaching and care as the world’s top athletes.” One thing that MCT doesn’t do is support cricket (which is not an Olympic sport anyway).

Mittal and Bhatia have taken different approaches towards imprinting their name on the Olympics. The father-in-law’s approach is a one-off sprint that carried risk and could confer glory. The son-in-law is running a marathon. His approach is akin to creating a winery from scratch. It involves the long view and many thankless hours in the sun, nurturing and coaxing the soil into sprouting champion vines. “I believe India is capable of producing world champions in sports, just like it is producing top-class professionals in information technology, engineering, medicine and business,” says Bhatia. “What is lacking are the funds needed to nurture this talent or the accessibility to infrastructure and support mechanisms that other international athletes are provided with. What MCT is doing is levelling the training and playing field.”

Mittal may be rueing his chance meeting with mayor Johnson, given the scathing criticism that the ArcelorMittal Orbit has attracted. The Timescalled it “a piece of vainglorious sub-industrial steel gigantism, signifying nothing”. Others have called it a “twisted helter-skelter”, a “turd on the plaza”. Admittedly, critics feed on each other and one early critical review can snowball into countless others. Only time will tell if the Orbitwill be viewed more benignly by future generations. I haven’t seen theOrbit in person, but from the photos, it looks like a roller coaster. It has the same advantage that all massive public arts projects do: scale. Magnify anything countless times and even a spider will awe (as Louise Bourgeois’ travelling public sculpture, Maman, does). To me, the unsung hero of the ArcelorMittal Orbit is its chief engineer, Pierre Engel, who was tasked with converting the design of artist Anish Kapoor and designer Cecil Balmond into a structure that can take 5,000 people a day. From the photos, I can’t tell if the Orbit is as strong a work as Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago, US.

If the ArcelorMittal Orbit is a flight of fancy that arose from a fit of bravado, Bhatia’s softer but consistent approach might well be the truss that props up India’s Olympic dreams. Given the murmurs about our nation hosting the Olympic Games at some future date, I can’t help indulging in a flight of fancy myself: Suppose one of our politicians or sports authorities were to meet Bhatia in a cloakroom in Davos. Who should that be and what should he or she ask of Bhatia? Should it be Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit; or Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati, with her penchant for erecting public sculptures of herself? Or should it be sports icon-turned Rajya Sabha member Sachin Tendulkar? If they meet, what should Tendulkar ask Bhatia? How can the Indian Olympic fraternity gain some momentum from a chance meeting between India’s most popular cricketing icon and a philanthropist who wants to convert India into the medal-hauling champion that China has become?

If I were to consider time, place and circumstance—samayam andsandhapam—in inventing this hypothetical scenario, I would argue that it shouldn’t be Tendulkar asking Bhatia to help create Indian Olympic champions, but vice versa. Sure, Mittal gave $30 million because Johnson asked for it at the right place and time. But he also gave the money because he recognized that it wouldn’t be frittered away. When Bhatia and Tendulkar run into each other, perhaps it will be Bhatia who does the asking. Perhaps he will ask Tendulkar to throw his might behind the Olympic fraternity after he retires from cricket. The Mittals could pledge more funds and Tendulkar could be the man who turned things around.

The champion who nurtured the next generation of Olympic champions: Not bad for a man who is a contender for the Bharat Ratna.

Shoba Narayan would have liked to be a fly on the wall when the first conversation between Mittal and Johnson happened. Write to her at [email protected]

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