The sad but true story of India's Olympic failings

"The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part. The essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well."

- Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin (1 January 1863 – 2 September 1937), Founder of the International Olympic Committee, and considered the father of the modern Olympic Games.

Thanks to the shrill ‘why-does-a-country-with-a-billion-people-win-so-few-Olympic-medals-brigade,’ every self-respecting Indian knows that India’s strike rate at the Olympics has been less than encouraging. Here’s a number that will make it seem like Indian sportspersons have taken the grandly named Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin’s words a little too much to heart: India has won just 0.16% of the 12,796 medals awarded in the last 116 years.

Depressing as it might read, the level-headed, not easily swayed and analytically inclined lot among you will see in that figure living proof that having a gigantic pool of people to dip into for potential Olympic champions is not a good enough reason to demand a rich haul of medals.

The next time someone uses the ‘population’ argument to bewail India’s poor performances at the greatest sporting spectacle on Earth, be sure it’s little more than lazy shorthand for ‘I haven’t thought hard enough about India’s abysmal returns, but this sounds like something I must feel indignant about.’

What this specious ‘billion-people-but-few-medals-to-show-for-it’ cry doesn’t take into account are some of the more real factors that hold our country back in the race to Olympic glory. In fact, and ironically, being the second most populous and most democratic country in the world hinders our attempts to harvest a rich haul of medals at the Olympics.

Unlike our huge neighbor China, which every competitive Indian knows won the most gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games and way, way, way, way more than India has in all sporting events put together, India is a thriving, chaotic democracy that cannot implement ‘grand’ plans in any walk of life, let alone sport, with an iron hand, like China can, and does.

Put simply, our proud status as a country in which anyone can do pretty much as they please is, yet, another hurdle in the way of India’s march to excel as a sporting nation. Democracy, as we all know and experience day in and day out, is a very slow, often inefficient way to get things done.

 The sad but true story of Indias Olympic failings

Sushil and Vijender are Olympic hopefuls at London. Reuters

If unbridled democracy is one of the things that is holding us back, how is it that equally, if not more, democratic countries like the United States of America, Great Britain, Australia, France and Italy, to name five of the top ten in the medals tally at the previous Games, managed to win so much?

The question brings us to another, perhaps even more debilitating reason obstructing India from scaling great heights as a sporting nation: Poverty. For one, all the five countries names just above are developed, ‘first world’ countries with a lot more resources to invest, or what many Indians might consider waste, on sporting pastimes.

India, by way of comparison, is 129th in the rankings of per capita incomes of countries around the world. Still we managed to finish a creditable 50th on the medals tally at the Beijing Olympics. Actually, Zimbabwe was the only country with a per capita income lower than ours to outshine India at the 2008 games, but only because one athlete, the swimmer Kirsty Coventry, won a gold and three silver medals all by herself for her country.

Of course, these deceptively impressive numbers from the Indian contingent will not be considered good enough by the lot that steadfastly believes a country with as many people as ours must finish, at least, in the top ten, if not second, in the race for sporting metal. Truth be told, a more valid cause for outrage would be if India were as prosperous and populated as say the USA but finished up outside the top 25 in the medal standings.

Quite obviously, it’s poverty and its consequences that thwart India from excelling as a sports entity. If this running, kicking, jumping, wresting and other such fun and games can be turned into a quest guaranteed to set you up for life, rather than the ‘squander of precious time’ most Indian parents caution their kids it is, Indians will take to sport in droves.

Our success as an academically-oriented people proves that we are excellent at pursuing something that pays well or, at least, regularly; to a lesser extent. So does India’s obsession with cricket. Indians crave security. Our repeated exposure to hardship and poverty makes us desperate to escape it by seeking, more than anything else, a source of income for life.

In the relatively short history of free India, education and work have been the recommended ways to make money and live somewhat happily ever after. Sport has never been the horse an average Indian would want to bet his proverbial ‘dhoti’ on. For India to win more Olympic medals, this must change. If India has to become a sports heavyweight, sport must become a middle class pursuit. Right now, only cricket, acquiring a university degree and work indisputably are. A cursory look at the medal winners for India in the last four Olympics will illustrate what I mean.

Leander Paes hails from a prosperous family. Karnam Malleswari, however, took to the hard grind of weightlifting as a means to give herself and her kin a better life. On the other hand, Colonel Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore was an Army man with access to world class training and nurturing from an early age. Abhinav Bindra, too, belongs to an affluent Sikh family. But Sushil Kumar Tehlan’s and Vijender Singh’s fathers were both bus drivers.

None of these medal winners are part of the ‘Great Indian middle class.’ Only the very poor or the very well off in India feel motivated enough (for entirely different reasons) to focus on competitive sports apart from cricket and studies. This is the prime reason India does not win very many medals at the Olympics, and other world level competitions. No more than a very small percentage of the population is willing to devote its life to athletics, shooting, judo, table tennis, gymnastics, fencing and the like.

It’s only when these activities become as or even somewhat as rewarding as cricket, school, and the ubiquitous ‘import-export’ will a majority of the billion Indians take it up. Until then, it’s idiotic to carp about the fact that a country with so many people has so little to show by way of Olympic medals.

Fact is, unlike the people who run this blessed nation our poor athletes are super motivated over-achievers.

The writer tweets @Armchairexpert. You can follow him if you’re into that sort of thing.

Updated Date: Jul 28, 2012 20:50:21 IST