India’s emergence as an economic leader in such areas as computer software is giving it confidence to take on new challenges, including in sports. “We are a developing nation, we want to be recognized by the G20 in the economic forums … [and we] want the status of being recognized as a power in sports, too,” notes Geet Sethi, who has won dozens of professional world-class championships and set world records in billiards and snooker. In an interview with India Knowledge at Wharton, Sethi discusses the foundation being laid by India — physically and psychologically — to reach new levels of success in sporting competitions. Sethi is also the author of Success vs. Joy and a founder of Olympic Gold Quest, a non-government organization that funds India’s Olympic medal hopefuls. The interview took place during the recent Wharton India Economic Forum in Philadelphia.

An edited transcript follows:

India Knowledge at Wharton: Thanks very much for joining us today. I want to ask you about a topic you have discussed before, which is the importance of dignity. You also have spoken about the need to have a subconscious belief in oneself — which is, as you put it, a foundation for success in sport. Can you talk about those characteristics, and then maybe about how they apply to business?

Geet Sethi: Yes. I think for a country which was starved of sporting success, India has had a very defeatist attitude. And taking an example from my own sport of billiards: In 1956, Wilson Jones won India its first world title in any sport, and that was billiards. He won one more world title, retired, and then a gentleman named Michael Ferreira came on the scene.

Now, [Ferreira] had played against Wilson Jones. He had almost beaten him, but not quite, and he said, “If Wilson Jones can win a world title, I have almost beaten him, so perhaps I am world-title material, too.” And then one day he beat Wilson Jones in a club level tournament and he said, “Yes, I can be that world champion.” … He then won three world billiard titles. I played him in the nationals, defeated him and won eight world billiard titles after that.

Now we have this young kid, Pankaj Advani, who is not yet 25, and he has already won six world billiard titles. That is the power of this self-conscious self-belief, and I do believe that it is true in every field of human endeavor. So, India is poised at the moment to do great things. Abhinav Bindra has just won us an Olympic gold [medal] in shooting. Prior to this, [during] the last Olympics, Rajyavardhan Rathore won us a silver in shooting and, in fact, in one of the programs that I was speaking on, I said, “I believe we are now ready to get a Olympic gold in shooting” — and sure enough, we did. I think by the next Olympics, we will get back five golds, and it is the power of this subconscious belief, undoubtedly so.

India Knowledge at Wharton: Well, that is interesting because India has not done well in the Olympics and probably because it is focused on other things, perhaps. But now there seems to be a lot of interest in that, particularly with the interest in cricket exploding in India and the idea that a sport can get sponsorships and it can grow and have that kind of an audience. So when it comes to the Olympics, maybe you could explain why is it that India has not met its potential yet?

Sethi: I think the way our sports — the Olympic platform sports — the way they are structured in governance is through a federation model, so there are federations for every sport which really are autonomous bodies. And they are ruled and governed by people who are there for years, for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. And they are massaging their own egos really, not really caring for the well-being of the athletes, who are there to get us the medals. And I think that, for a long time, was a big problem.

I also believe that priority was a big issue. For a government which was struggling to get poverty out of the system, unemployment, roads, infrastructure, sport occupied a very, very low priority and it was reflected in our budget. So our sport budget in 1998 was 150 crores, which translates to about US$30 million as compared to, at that time, the sport budget of China, which was something in the region of almost a billion dollars or just under a billion dollars. So money is very, very important and I think that the value of that money coming [into sport in India, shows] the priority has changed. Government, over the last 10 years, said, “Yes, we now need to reaffirm our standing in the world in sport, too.” We have done it in IT, we have done it in steel, we have done it is so many other areas. We need to do it in sport. They are injecting more money into infrastructure — perhaps not as much as they should, but more importantly they are injecting money directly to the athlete.

So an athlete, if he wins an Olympic Gold, is being given tax-free money to the tune of about a half a million to a million dollars. If you win a Asian Games gold medal, you get something like $100,000 — and all this is translates into the athlete slowly finding himself at a different level, both psychologically and in terms of the dignity that I have talked about. We should have dignity in ourselves, and I think as a society we need to impart and instill dignity into our fellow beings, especially athletes, by the competency of the athletes, not necessarily with the amount of money that they have. But we live in a real and harsh world, and I think dignity is identified directly with money, and I think this injection — this huge dose of injection of money is slowly raising our dignity levels and so I am very, very hopeful of India doing very well in the Olympics.

India Knowledge at Wharton: Well, that is certainly understandable — why a country that has a lot of people living in poverty would hesitate to spend money on what some might consider a luxury. But it sounds like [the government has] made a decision that even if investing in sport doesn’t generate a business profit, there can be a return on that investment. In other words, it is not just money that is being spent and coming back in some form and maybe in multiples even. Is that a part of the equation and how does that thinking work?

Sethi: I do not know whether government injects money and they — well, they have clearly recognized that sport is a priority and that they are not really looking at multiples coming back in any monetary form. But I think it is a status issue, it is an issue that we are now benchmarking ourselves against the best countries. We are a developing nation, we want to be recognized by the G20, in the economic forums — in the IT forums, certainly, we are right there at the top. So it is just, I think from our governance point of view, we just want the status of being recognized as a power in sports, too. We are not necessarily looking at it in terms of what multiple of money we can get from the sport, though there will be a spill off. I think once you have achievers, once you have people who have done well in a particular sport, typically we find that that particular sport flourishes in the country. A case in point is Viswanathan Anand, who is the World Chess Champion and a Grand Master and he has just revolutionized sport of chess in the country. It is a widely played sport. Tennis is [another] example, starting from the era of Vijay Amritraj, even before that Ramanathan Krishnan. Today you have Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander: Between the two of them they have won, I think, about 12 Grand Slam Titles. And you have a young Sania Mirza, who is doing really well. So it has its spill offs, but from the government’s perspective … [the] country’s perspective, from society’s perspective, we want to be considered a sporting power. We are not that yet, but we will reach there.

India Knowledge at Wharton: Well, in the case of cricket, which at one of the forums today someone referred to as not a sport in India but a religion, it has become a big moneymaker and a big business, and there is now a lot of sponsorship money, players are making higher salaries and all the rest of it. Are there any of the sports that would also be Olympic sports, where this might be possible?

Sethi: I do not know whether golf is yet an Olympic sport — I believe not. But when it does [become one], I think golf surely could be one. Tennis — I think we do not have players who are in the top 80 or 100 in the singles, but in doubles and in the Davis Cup we are good. So, as an Olympic discipline sport, I do believe tennis could become that — a really well-marketed and well-packaged sport, which kind of catches the fascination of the public. It has all the glamour, the excitement, which has really made it into a global sport. Amongst the other Olympic disciplines, athletics always will have a certain charm about it and we are strong in women’s middle-distance running. So, there is a lot of focus happening particularly on that, too.

And of course shooting — we are considered one of the best shooters in the world and Abhinav Bindra’s gold medal has done a lot for our country to kind of elevate us to a very, very high benchmark and level. But unfortunately, shooting is not a spectacular sport to watch and there lies in the [problem] — it is a tough call. How does one popularize and monetize the Olympic Gold Medal or the benchmarks that our shooters have reached? How does one monetize that from an event perspective? I think that is a very big challenge; perhaps it has not happened anywhere in the world and perhaps it will not happen in India. So, I think it is very important to see which sport one plays and eventually the sports that have really succeeded are the sports that are very simple to follow by the layman, by the guy watching it on TV. So, we will need to look at those sports really to see them evolve into multimillion-dollar industries. So as of now I just see, I think, tennis, women’s athletics and golf, perhaps when golf gets into the Olympics.

India Knowledge at Wharton: [During the panel discussion,] some people said that in order for these things to develop, India is going to have to make some investments in infrastructure, and you referred to that briefly. Could you elaborate on that?

Sethi: Yes. We are just going to be hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and there is a lot infrastructure happening in Delhi, because it is going to be hosted in Delhi. But clearly the dose — the injection that one needs — is very huge; India is a large country. I believe that with achievement at the Olympic platform, we will slowly increase the investment into sporting infrastructure.

At the moment, whatever infrastructure we have is courtesy the 1982 Asian Games, which was again held in Delhi. And the same infrastructure is continuing and we had the Afro-Asian Games, which happened in the southern part of India, through which a lot of infrastructure got developed. So, I think we will let the Commonwealth go, if we can show the world that we are capable of holding another Asian Games or perhaps the Olympics. If that happens, it could be in 10 years or 15 years, I do not know, but if we can host the Olympics, I believe India’s infrastructure requirements would be well catered for and well executed.

India Knowledge at Wharton: Something tells me if you win that contract you will be winning more gold medals when it comes around. You also mentioned the sport golf and I wanted you to talk about your own sport a little bit. One thing that I find fascinating about it is that it is one of the few sports, like golf, where you are competing against a competitor but in some ways you are competing against yourself. It must be such a psychological game. Even in tennis, it is not a team sport but you still have an opponent. Here, it is not a team sport and you have an opponent but really you are not interacting with the opponent. It is up to you entirely.

Sethi: You are absolutely right. The only two sports where you strike a stationary ball, so there is no opponent, your biggest opponent is yourself. And in a sport like that, when they talk about “killer instinct” — a killer instinct in tennis is all about a lot of aggression, about McEnroe with all that — but I think in billiards, snooker pool and golf, “killer instinct” really is … the ability to just retain calmness at the pressure point, at the point when you need a particular red pot and you need to pot that ball. At that point, you need to maintain and be completely calm, so it is really the inverse of what “killer instinct” invokes — something with a lot of aggression. It is the opposite here. You need to be completely calm. You need to take a deep breath and just [realize] that is the pressure point and you need to go for it. And, in fact, I personally lengthened this definition of killer instinct further, the calmness — I believe very strongly that killer instinct, even in an aggressive sport like football and tennis and cricket or whatever you have — is all about retaining your calmness really at the pressure point. It is not about aggression, it is the inverse of aggression, it is about calmness.

India Knowledge at Wharton: One last thing and that is that the importance of dignity and subconscious belief that you talked about, perhaps standing on the shoulders of your predecessors to succeed. India seems to have done that in the software business with the great success of its many big, global software companies. And that seems to have sparked a kind of national self-consciousness about the ability to succeed beyond borders. Can you comment on that parallel?

Sethi: Yeah, it is a terrific case in point, the IT sector, and I think it is the same thing. You have two good companies who have come in, who have established good corporate governance, who have made it to the top of the world. It is going to happen in every field of human endeavor eventually and it is — I am a great believer in this subconscious self-belief. It starts off as a subconscious belief and then manifests itself into achieving very, very high benchmarks. So both at a personal level and at a societal level, there is a great value that I have put on this and whilst you could be competent, whilst you could have excellence, you could have achieved a particular excellence in your own discipline, but somewhere down the line the impact of tradition and the impact of history and of the predecessors that you follow, does make an impact and it does influence you to do and to become more positive and to achieve greater heights.

India Knowledge at Wharton: And now it sounds as though that is what you have in mind partly, as you take a leadership position in the country to achieve greatness in other sports and in building infrastructure and that sort of thing. Is that what you are attempting to do?

Sethi: Yes, I have actually started a foundation and it is called the Olympic Gold Quest and we had a badminton player called Prakash Padukone, so the two of us — we have got industry leaders involved in this as well and we have started this foundation with a clear mission — the mission statement being, raising money to fund those athletes in India who have a genuine potential to win us an Olympic gold. So, we find that even though that there is money from the government, the tone of the government and the sentiment of the government has changed for the positive, but the bureaucracy and the speed of disbursement of funds is not necessarily at its efficient best.

So, I have a shooter called Gagan Narang whom we have adopted and he needs to go tomorrow for a training session; he has the plan all planned out but he does not get his funding for his ticket in time, his coach has not been cleared, so we just come in and say, whatever the government cannot fund you, we will put in, and you just do what you have to do, you get the best coaches, the best mental coaches, the best shooter and the best physiotherapist that you want and let not money be a cause why you have not been able to achieve your potential in winning an Olympic gold. So, that is what Olympic Gold Quest is all about.

India Knowledge at Wharton: So, you are an angel investor in sports talent?

Sethi: Well, an angel investor with a very strong NGO bias, this a not-for-profit company and we just focus at raising money from any Indian, anywhere in the world, for this hugely emotional sentiment of getting us more Olympic Golds.

Knowledge at Wharton: Thanks very much for speaking with us today.

Sethi: Thank you.