Why we don’t see wrestlers from Tamil Nadu or runners from Bihar and Haryana

Prakhar Misra and Kadambari Shah, Apr, 06 2017

The Indian Premier League (IPL), one of the foremost cricket tournaments in the world, started on Wednesday. This event has several accolades to its name, from being one of the most attended sport leagues globally, to setting the ground for the live broadcasting of sporting events on YouTube, to contributing significantly to Indian GDP.

File photo of Sushil Kumar. Reuters

File photo of Sushil Kumar. Reuters

However, what’s most intriguing about the IPL is its ability to bring the whole country together. While one foot of the allure certainly lies in glamour (nail-biting games, legendary cricketers, Bollywood stars), the other is rooted in national representation (almost every state has their own team or player, stadium to host a match, etc).

Any Indian sportsman, no matter where they are from, can be a cricketer — no questions asked. But this is not true for other sports. For example, Salman Khan’s Sultan and Aamir Khan’s Dangal are both biopics on wrestlers, based in Haryana. This seems quotidian, what would have raised eyebrows is if the wrestlers were from Tamil Nadu or Karnataka. Thus one can’t help but wonder why certain states have an unavowed monopoly over certain sports, producing sportsmen of high calibre only in that sport.

The macro picture

Take the case of the Olympics. As a nation, we take pride in our participation at the Games. Yet, this is not quite reflected in the numbers.

From Figure 1, with an exception or two, a look at Indian contestants from 1980 to 2016 shows increased participation. Last year, we sent 118 sportspersons to Rio, the highest so far. However, we are nowhere close to China’s 416, France’s 397, Japan’s 336, or USA’s 552 sportspeople.


State-wise distribution

While investigating these low figures, we realised that certain states command an unsaid monopoly over certain sports in India. Over the last four Olympic Games (2004-2016), a sample of about 300 athletes and their state-wise representation looks as below:



Haryana has the highest number of Olympic competitors (57), followed by Punjab (39), and Karnataka (28). We found some compelling reasons how the governments of these states are helping sportspeople grow.

Competitors are driven by incentives: personal motivation, financial security, or social factors. Directing these incentives towards core policy arenas is crucial in making headway in sports anywhere in the world. To begin with, in addition to central government awards, Haryana and Punjab offer special perks like fat cash prizes, fancy cars, and job security to its sportspersons. In Haryana, under the new sports policy, a gold medal fetches Rs 6 crore, silver is Rs 4 crore, and a bronze is worth Rs 2.5 crore. Moreover, just for participating, each sportsperson gets Rs 15 lakh. The Punjab Government gives similar amounts, and extends such benefits to the Commonwealth Games and other world championships too. Likewise, Karnataka has set up a fee-reimbursement scheme where children from classes XI to post-graduation can get their tuition fee reimbursed if they participate in the Games; for sports like gymnastics and swimming, children from Class V onwards (age 10) are eligible. Yet, on a global scale, we’re still way behind in prize money awarded to medallists.

According to a CNN report, Chinese-Taipei paid its medallists the most amount of money — female weightlifter Hsu Shu-ching, was awarded $952,000. Following the island country was Singapore, which forked out $746,000 to swimmer Joseph Schooling for winning their first-ever Olympic gold medal. Indonesia ($382,000), Thailand ($290,000), Malaysia ($251,000), Brazil ($250,000), Kazakhstan ($250,000), Azerbaijan ($247,000), Philippines ($216,000) and Kyrgyzstan ($200,000).

Secondly, a more sophisticated sports infrastructure is conducive to developing talent. In 2013, Haryana spent Rs 12 crore on upgrading its sports facilities. Before that, about 11 residential sports nurseries and 193 day boarding centres were set up in 2011 alone. Over and above this, the government decided to award gradation certificates to over one lakh sportspersons registered on their database. Similarly, in 2015, the Punjab government joined hands with the Sports Authority of India to establish a new regional centre to train athletes with ultra-modern facilities.

Sports-wise representation

We can see that wrestlers and boxers predominantly come from Haryana. Yogeshwar Dutt, Vijender Singh, Sushil Kumar are some examples. Tennis and badminton players like Sania Mirza, Pullela Gopichand, Leander Paes come from western/southern cities like Hyderabad, Maharashtra, and Bangalore. The pattern extends to runners like Anju Bobby George, PT Usha, MD Valsamma hailing from Kerala.

This dichotomy is reflected in the data as well. In our sample, approximately 90% of Olympic archers and wrestlers/boxers/weightlifters come from the North and Northeast states of the country. Approximately 75% tennis and approximately 80% badminton stars rise from South India and Maharashtra. But why don’t we see wrestlers from Tamil Nadu and runners from Bihar?

In Kerala, 14 of the 16 Arjuna awardees the state has produced have been women. In addition, approximately 75% of long/high jumpers come from Kerala in our data set. Better facilities, flatter grounds are some reasons cited. The most important one, however, is that schools are encouraged to identify athletes at a very young age and prepare them for a career accordingly. For instance, Gopi Thonakkal, a tribal athlete who was selected by his school teacher and was trained in running since, represented India at the Rio Olympics.

In racquet sports, a common link between the Western/Southern territories is economic and social: these areas feature in the richest and most urbanised states in the country; the sports infrastructure is available and affordable to the people. Policy also plays a part: back in 2010, the Tamil Nadu Tennis Association decided to revamp its infrastructure in 14 districts, a move initiated by government authorities. Further, international tennis tournaments like ‘Chennai Open’ are hosted in this part of India, thereby furthering athletic performances.

Lastly, success begets success. Once a medal winner emerges in a certain region, people are inspired to follow in their footsteps. Consistent medal winners in particular sports have fuelled and propelled a self-fulfilling hypothesis on achievements that others could follow through on. In each case, the state with the society has collaboratively created a culture for such achievements to flower.

Policy measures at the union level

Sports-related infrastructure is not just a state concern but a central one too. Although a state-wise breakdown of funding according to sports is not available, there is a clear increase in funding to sports in India at a national level. Most recently, in the 2017-18 Annual Budget, sports saw an Rs 350 crore hike, reaching a total of Rs 1943 crore. While sports sector spending by the government is rising, as a function of the total budget it continues to takes a hit.

Thus, barring cricket (which already has an established national zeal), the effect of policy changes at both state and union level affect the way the society accepts sports as a career. While some reasons have been cited, it is always hard to establish causality especially, in such a volatile and ever-innovating sector as sports. But, by and large, a mix of cultural and political forces has led to the way we acknowledge sports as a professional discipline in India. Whether this is good or bad, is for each one to judge for themselves. But, it sure does have an impact on sportspeople and their careers in real time.


Prakhar Misra is a Chevening Scholar reading for a Masters in Public Policy at the University of Oxford. Prior to this, he was a Chanakya Scholar at the Meghnad Desai Academy of Economics. He has completed his fellowship with the Swaniti Initiative and with Teach For India. Twitter @prakharmisra

Kadambari Shah is a Senior Analyst at IDFC Institute, a think/do tank based in Mumbai. Prior to this, she studied at the Meghnad Desai Academy of Economics. She has an undergraduate degree in Economics and English Literature from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. Twitter @kadambari_shah

Published Date: Apr 06, 2017 | Updated Date: Apr 06, 2017

Rank Team Points Rating
1 India 4493 125
2 South Africa 3395 110
3 England 4097 105
4 Australia 3087 100
5 New Zealand 3114 97
Rank Team Points Rating
1 South Africa 5957 119
2 Australia 5505 117
3 India 4579 114
4 England 5645 113
5 New Zealand 5123 111
Rank Team Points Rating
1 New Zealand 1625 125
2 England 1962 123
3 Pakistan 2417 121
4 West Indies 2222 117
5 India 2183 115