Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

'Our Olympians are our role models, they will change the sporting culture in the country'

Husband-wife duo of Rashesh and Vidya Shah of Edelweiss on working with the Indian Olympic Association, Sports Authority of India and the government to support—both financially and emotionally—Olympic-worthy athletes

Published: Oct 8, 2021 06:10:00 PM IST
Updated: Oct 8, 2021 07:08:48 PM IST

'Our Olympians are our role models, they will change the sporting culture in the country'(Left) Rashesh Shah, chairperson of the Edelweiss Group; (Right) Vidya Shah, executive chairperson of the EdelGive Foundation

Rashesh Shah, chairperson of the Edelweiss Group, and his wife Vidya, executive chairperson of the EdelGive Foundation, made their initial foray into sports with the now-defunct Indian Cricket League (ICL), but realised soon after that there was hardly any support for sports beyond those 22 yards. Since then, the Shahs have made annual investments into the Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), a non-profit venture that provides the best-in-class support for Olympic athletes, on-boarded iconic women athletes to ensure their long-term financial security, and became a sponsor for the Indian contingent for the 2018 Commonwealth Games as well as the recently-concluded Tokyo Olympics

Why have Vidya and Shah chosen to “invest back” into this field and build sporting role models to inspire the nation? They discuss with Forbes India in a freewheeling interview. Edited excerpts: 
How did the decision to support Olympic sports come about?
Vidya: In 2005-06, we looked at cricket, at the Indian Cricket League (ICL), which cricketers like Kapil Dev were promoting. While ICL didn't go anywhere, sports resided in our hearts and we felt that we had to do something for it.
The ICL experience taught us there was so much being done for cricket already, in terms of corporate and infrastructural support. As we looked around, we realised there was hardly any support for non-cricket sports.
It was around that time that I met [billiards world champion] Geet Sethi and [India’s first All-England-winning shuttler] Prakash Padukone, who were thinking about setting up the Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ). It was early days, but as an organisation what attracted us was that it was looking at sports that were not only non-cricket, but also didn't have a general following in the country, unlike football or hockey. Sports like archery, shooting, boxing etc. They also put in a lot of efforts in identifying athletes.
Another thing we liked about OGQ's strategy was that it worked very closely with the government—the biggest support of sport in the country—because it has the infrastructure and budgets for it. When we decided to work with OGQ, we decided to only support women athletes and we continue to do that since 2010.
With the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), we wanted to see how we can help push the culture of Olympic sports. OGQ was ensuring that all our athletes participate in the world championships, the key tournaments that lead to Olympic qualification. But without the government behind this, it’s just working on one leg. That is when we stepped in and said let's see how we can work with the IOA.
What kind of support have you provided for these athletes?
Vidya: With OGQ, we've been supporting athletes through the EdelGive Foundation. There we pick about 5-6 women athletes every year and provide them with complete support—from nutrition, finding good coaches and physiotherapists to travel and sports psychologists.
Second, during the pandemic, most athletes had a big break in terms of training. Through OGQ, we supported a lot of athletes with home gyms. In case people didn't have enough space in their houses, we tried to arrange a schedule for them so that they could continue with their training.
The third element is working closely with the government—the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and the federations working with athletes—and providing them with the right kind of support. Some of the camps they hold often don't have access to the best trainers, sports psychologists, physiotherapists and rehab facilities, so that is provided too.
Over time, we've started supporting younger athletes and nurture the age group of 12-15 years… if you don't have that crop, you won't have the PV Sindhus and Mary Koms in the future.
Rashesh: Even with the IOA, we've had a very good relationship. It was surprising to see that there were no sponsors for the Indian Olympic team, whereas so much money goes into cricket. Hence, we got associated with the IOA to sponsor the Indian team.
One of our other ideas was that we wanted to take care of the financial health of a lot of these athletes. It's a problem across all sports in India, where athletes make a lot of money for those 4-5 years [during their playing career], maybe 8-10 years at best. This is true for cricket also, but with cricket, now there are a lot of other things that you can do. But if you are a badminton player, sprinter, archer or shooter, you have 5-8 years maximum to make some money. For these athletes, we decided to give them insurance cover and an annuity package, so that their long-term financial well-being is also taken care of.
What were the early challenges in terms of support for Olympic sports?
Vidya: Cricket used to get a lion’s share of the corporate support in the early days in 2009-10. After our short cricket foray, we realised that corporates were very hesitant to train athletes. OGQ was a great organisation because they made a start, saying we want to go for an Olympic gold, which at that time no one had believed. Therefore, the support in the initial days was really trying to break the myth, by saying that we do have Olympic-worthy athletes and if there is a systematic programme of identification and continuous support, we are a nation that is capable of winning medals.
The early challenges were on the funding side, because while the government was doing a lot of work with the athletes, Indian sport itself was going through a significant change at that time. This whole generation of athletes like PT Usha and Anju Bobby George really started putting India on the map. Hence, there was a change in the ecosystem.
What sort of investments have you made?
Vidya: On an average, we have supported OGQ with about Rs 70-75 lakh every year. This excludes all the support that Edelweiss has given to the IOA and the individual athletes. Overall, it would be around Rs 7-8 crore, apart from what the Edelweiss Group has done. What we do with OGQ is largely through CSR, but the work with IOA and the individual support to the sportspeople is not part of CSR… it’s something we just wanted to do as an organisation.
Rashesh: We look for qualitative over quantitative, but yes, we do look at this as an investment. The philosophy of our foundation is we don't say “giving back”, because that implies you have taken something and you are giving that back. We call it “investing back”. Like we invest in various companies and businesses, we also need to invest in the country and its social structure.
There is no specific return on the investment that we want to make… we want to see progress and evaluate it.
If you look at medals, you'll notice that there are a lot of hits and misses. I was very surprised when I found out that of the 11,000 athletes that go to the Olympics, only about 1,000 get any medal, so the 90 percent that qualify don't win a medal.
Vidya: India is now coming onto the Olympics map. For instance, there were so many of our athletes that missed a bronze by a whisker, the idea is how many of them provide strong competition. The biggest thing about Olympic sports is that these are sports that a lot of the hinterland of India plays. It is so much harder to excel in these, because the kind of support systems that cricket has don't exist for these.
But you will be amazed at the kind of role models that our Olympians go on to become. If you see Mary Kom, for instance, she’s built a boxing academy in Manipur and the young boxers she's now supporting all look up to her and say "I want to be Mary Kom". I think that is also very important because you are really changing the culture of the country.