Salman Khan as India’s goodwill ambassador at the Olympics – yay or nay?

Bollywood celebrities have often been called on to endorse various sports in the hope some of their stardust will rub off.

Since he was declared the goodwill ambassador for India's contingent at the Rio Olympics 2016, Salman Khan has polarised opinion on social media. AFP PHOTO / AFP / STR
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Can Salman Khan give India a boost at the Rio 2016 Olympics?

Yes, says the Bollywood megastar, who has been appointed goodwill ambassador for the Indian contingent heading to Brazil in August.

“Having someone like me helps in creating a buzz about the Olympics,” said the 50-year-old Khan, somewhat grandly. In this new role, he wants to “charge up players and see how they are progressing”, and hopes that his encouragement will bring India more medals this year.

Bollywood celebrities have often been called on to endorse various sports in the hope some of their stardust will rub off.

Amitabh Bachchan carried the Olympic flame in London on the eve of the 2012 Olympics. Akshay Kumar was a torchbearer at the winter Olympics in 2010, and a goodwill ambassador for the Special Olympics in 2009, a global event supported by international personalities outside of the sports arena.

While Khan is a superstar and commands millions of fans, he remains mired in controversy, what with the jury still out on two of his biggest brushes with the law – killing protected deer in Jodhpur in 1998, and a fatal hit-and-run in Mumbai in 2002.

The news of the actor’s appointment was met with vociferous dissent from sportspersons such as Indian wrestler and Olympic medallist Yogeshwar Dutt.

Dutt believes that Khan has signed up only to promote his upcoming sports film, Sultan, which is about a wrestler's life. Supporting Dutt is former Olympic athlete Milkha Singh, the subject of the 2015 Hindi biopic Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, starring Farhan Akhtar, who told a television reporter the Olympics need ambassadors from sports and not Bollywood.

This annoyed Khan’s father, the celebrated screenwriter Salim Khan, who retorted with several tweets, including:

“Milkhaji it is not Bollywood it is the Indian Film Industry and that too the largest in the world.”

“The same industry that resurrected you from fading away in oblivion.”

“Salman Khan may not have competed but is an A level swimmer cyclist and weightlifter.”

But his son continues to attract criticism on social media, especially Twitter, and some of the remarks are scathing:

Fraud Pitt @doubblenegative: “The greatest achievement for this nation will be when it can go beyond Bollywood for anything.”#SalimForSalman #SalmanRioRow

The Day Dreamer @iSwarnendu: “I support the decision of making ‪#SalmanKhan Olympic ambassador. BHAI has unmatchable talent in shooting, hitting & running.”

Vibhav Dholakia @Vibhir “Next what[?] Priyanka Chopra awarded bronze medal as she played MaryKom.” #SalmanForRio

LolaNutty @namitaadavi: “The only sport Salman Khan has probably mastered is running – run people over, run from law, run around trees.”#SalmanRioRow

There have been some positive comments from former sports stars who see Bollywood as a kind of conduit for better sponsorship and way to generate interest in sports other than cricket – an India-wide obsession that eclipses even the country’s national sport, hockey.

Award-winning Indian boxer Vijender Singh, tweeted: “Involve @BeingSalmanKhan & senior sportspeople as ambassadors. Will enhance media/sponsor interest, esp for budding athletes.” #SalmanForRio

Shooter Abhinav Bindra, the only Olympic gold medallist from India, expressed pleasure: “Dear @BeingSalmanKhan, am sure you will use your tremendous goodwill to help Indian Olympic Sport and Olympic athletes in their pursuit towards excellence. Congratulations on being appointed ambassador of the Indian Olympic Team!”

Indian boxing champion Mary Kom tweeted: “It’s good for us to have a brand ambassador like him.”

Erstwhile cricketer Sunil Gavaskar believes Khan’s presence can benefit the Olympics, just as Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta, who own teams in the Indian Premier League for 20/20 cricket, attract crowds to stadiums.

“If he can bring a lot more awareness, then why not? I don’t see anything wrong in it,” he said.

Praful Patel, a member of parliament, expressed caution about what we really need to do now – which is to wait until the Indian Olympic Association announces the names of the other goodwill ambassadors, reportedly eminent sports personalities.

“Anything we do lands into a controversy?” he tweeted. “For our country’s sake let’s move on. His support should be welcomed. Jai ho [Victory to India].”