Why India fails at Olympics: The outdoors is not our space

This Olympics, like every Olympics, is barren for India.

The record is revealing. A silver medal and four bronze this time so far. A gold and two bronze the last time, a silver and a bronze the time before that.

There is great media enthusiasm in India for our athletes during the Olympics. Their progress is reported on front pages. In the language of our newspapers, India's athletes "storm into the next round". But they fall before medals are in sight, and their storm blows over.

Why does India fare so poorly? The answer obviously is that our athletes are not good enough to win.
China has collected 87 medals so far, including 38 gold. In the last games, they got 100 medals including 51 gold. What could possibly explain this staggering difference?

In an excellent piece on Firstpost - Olympics: The difference between India and China is... family -  badminton champion Aparna Popat explained one key difference.

Ours is not a culture that celebrates the Great Outdoors. Reuters

"China’s essential aim was to win glory for the nation through sport," she wrote. "To achieve this goal, the Chinese established centralized elite sports system. There were government run sports training centres at all levels – national, provincial, city and county sports schools. Children as young as 4 years were identified and put into these training centres. With all expenses borne by the State, the children were made to train out of their skins so that one day they may excel at the international level and bring glory for the nation."

On the other hand, Popat writes, in India the support comes mainly and perhaps only from family. She writes of how her mother sacrificed her own life in support of her daughter's talent. The mother of P Gopichand, another badminton champion, also did this. And so the argument is that in the absence of state support, it is family that steps in.

This is a good and sound explanation of why both she and Gopichand did so well, as did others who came through the same route.

Does it explain why there is such a difference between India and China? Perhaps it does.

But it assumes there are plenty of quality athletes in India awaiting state help. Is that the case? I don't think so, and anecdotal data supports this. So then where should we look for illumination?

On the Newslaundry.com website, someone has written a most entertaining piece of satire (The secret Olympics diaries) miming the style and thinking of Indian writers.

Your columnist, this worthless creature (as Aurangzeb referred to himself in his letters), has also been parodied. The piece, in my voice, seeks to explain India's failure in cultural terms. My obsession with explaining things through caste has been deployed so skilfully by the anomymous writer that he has all but written this current piece for me.

And so I must speculate elsewhere, but without moving too far from culture, which is where most solutions are to be found.

There are two ways of looking at sporting success. One is external support, such as that provided by state or family.

The other, in my opinion the more important, is internal. For the state to build great Olympic squads, there must be tens of millions of youth interested in the physical life. I don't think Indians are particularly inclined in this direction. The outdoors is not our space.

Aristotle laid down the principles of biology and physiology purely from observation. Thomas Jefferson, who had dozens of slaves, himself went out to record the temperature and barometric pressure at his Virginia home, Monticello, twice a day.

Most Indians cannot name the trees and birds that surround them (to the extent that they do) in our cities.

India's texts - from Mahabharat to Maasir-i-Alamgiri - have little in them of physical description and of actual nature. There are exceptions, like Ferishta, but they are exceptions.

Arrian, in a few throwaway paragraphs on Alexander's Indian campaign, tells us more about Punjab and the frontier's topography than all of Heer.

Sports and athleticism are a product of outdoors cultures, those that engage with the outside world. The Roman general Cincinnatus went back to working on his field after saving his country. He did this for the pleasure of working with his hands. This is unthinkable in India.

Ours is a culture of servants, of gardeners. We have a contempt of physical work.

There's no chance of our excelling at the Olympics, which is a celebration of it.