The real lessons of India’s past Olympic letdowns

Every four years, as the Indian contingent heads to the latest venue of the summer Olympics, the media is awash with tremulous speculation. It’s a familiar narrative. India’s contingent is always better trained and the government has spent larger sums of money on it than ever before. Ergo, India should come away with more medals than before. Each time, the performance is underwhelming, but the country launches into disproportionate celebrations nevertheless — such as of the first individual gold in 2008. That adds to a tally of nine gold (eight of them won effortlessly by our men’s hockey team), four silver (two by an Englishman in pre-independence India, one by the men’s hockey team and one by Rajyavardhan Rathore in shooting), and seven bronze (wrestling, weightlifting, tennis and boxing plus two, again, from the redoubtable men’s hockey team). That makes for 20 medals in 30 Olympics (summer and winter).

Then the discontent shifts to comparison with the Great Rival, China, with an all-time tally of 429 medals in 17 Olympics (172 gold, 135 silver and 122 bronze). The usual explanation is that India can’t compete because totalitarian China can pour money with impunity into such Orwellian national ego-boosting exercises as training athletes from infancy, just as the Soviet bloc did before 1991. So, true, the comparison with China is inappropriate — and not just because of the differential in medal tallies but its form of government. Indeed, the more germane comparison is with the US, Europe, Japan, Australia and even South Korea. Sure, they are rich countries but the reason they would be considered an appropriate comparison this instance is this. Most Indians — rightly — take enormous pride in the fact that the country is a democracy. At one time, the India Brand Equity Foundation was fond of describing India as the “world’s fastest-growing democracy”. So why can’t India match the performances of these other democracies? One answer lies in the human development indicators — athletes in these countries are healthier, better fed and have access to better healthcare, water and sanitation than most citizens in a country that languishes at 134th out of 187 countries in the Human Development Indicator rankings.

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