Wednesday, February 8th, 2023 16:09:17

Why Can’t 1.25 Billion Indians Win More Olympic Medals?

Updated: September 4, 2015 7:15 am

Viswamitra advised Rama and Laxman from his empowered years of austerities and penance that sports serve society by providing vivid examples of excellence. It is not whether you get knocked down; it is whether you get up against the competitors, difficulties, or whatever. That is what matter in life. It reveals to us the range of Indians’ healthy relationships with sports from Treta Yuga to 21st century!

It is clearly visible that India is a sports crazy nation. India is the second largest populous country; it is the 10th largest economy and also the biggest democracy in the world and probably the oldest nation in the history. But why is India unable to win more medals at the Olympics? The answer to this lies so deep that a gold miner will reach the earth’s crust when he starts digging for gold, and even then he might not find it. Though this analogy is a hyperbole, it pretty much sums up the state of athletes in India.

Though the population of India and China differs by a few tens of millions, India’s contribution to Olympic medals is very less vis-a-vis China. Much to its shame, even the United States with almost a fourth of India’s population has always held its flags high at the Games. This problem makes one wonder what exactly is wrong with the current state of affairs in India, and it is one that needs to be addressed soon.

Albeit without a gold medal, London Olympic 2012 was India’s most successful Olympics to date, where it finished with two silver and four bronze medals. This translates into over 200 million people per medal, the highest ratio of all competing nations at London. With an annual GDP of $1.842 trillion, according to 2012 World Bank data, yet its number of medals is far lower than that of countries with economies of comparable size. Take Russia, although its GDP is marginally larger than India’s, it won 82 medals at the London Games.

One had to scroll way down before getting to India in the Olympic rankings. It was 55th out of 79, below the likes of North Korea (20), the tiny Caribbean archipelago of Trinidad and Tobago (47) and nowhere near fellow BRIC economies. If the medal tally is adjusted to its population and the size of its economy, the result is even less remarkable; India comes last in both tables.

It would be false to say that India does not produce good sportsmen and women. In cricket, the country’s ardent obsession, it had in Sachin Tendulkar, one of the sport’s greatest ever players, until he retired from all formats at the end of the year 2013. The Indian men’s field hockey team won six consecutive Olympic Golds from 1928 to 1956 (field hockey accounts for more than half of India’s historical total of 26 Olympic medals).

There is no doubt that India has abundant talent in its repository, but why does it underperform at the Olympic Games? The biggest problem is that Indian athletes don’t enjoy much financial or institutional support due to the over-obsession with cricket. No doubt India has made itself prominent in the world with continual successes in cricket, it has kind of acted as a hindrance to the progress of other sports. More and more money is flowing into cricket with a number of sponsors lined up to provide support while other sports don’t get the financial injection they so badly require.

Most parents, if their children do take up sport as a profession, want them to become cricketers for obvious reason that there’s money and fame involved. Also, after the advent of the lucrative Indian Premier League around seven years ago, this mentality has become even more deep-rooted in the psyche of the Indian public.

The thought of the inability of Indian athletes to gather medals at the Olympics occurs only once in four years, that too for a month or so when the media is covering it. The rest of the time, people are busy worshipping and enjoying the entertainment that cricket provides.

It is not just the facilities provided that matter, but also the standard of living in a country. Suppose a person in the United States decides to try his skills at athletics and wants to give a shot at winning medals in the Games in the near future, he can do that; and if he fails to get anything out of this profession, he can resort to something else outside of sports and still manage to live a good life. But if the same person attempts to do this in India, he will never recover from his decision that may turn out to be a mistake, and will forever have to struggle throughout his life, because he has neither the educational qualification nor the skills to equip himself/herself for a life outside sport.

Yet, the income of a country can’t be the dominant factor in deciding whether it can excel in Olympics or not. Poorer countries in Asia, Europe, and Africa excel in some of the sports. For instance, poorest countries like Kenya and Ethiopia are home to some of the best runners. Kazakhstan dominates in weightlifting. Regional differences play a part in this. It seems India has yet to discover an event in the Olympics in which it can excel, since the golden days of hockey are long gone.

Is Indians ready for Olympic plunge?

To what extent will this dismal statistic change at Rio 2016? Can the 33 Indian athletes who have already qualified, and the many others, who will provide India’s Olympic journey a new momentum? Can they stand up to the pressure of the Olympics and not have a breakdown common to many Indian athletes in the past.

With an excellent showing at the recently concluded world championships, Deepika Kumari, Laxmirani Majhi and Rimul Buruily have once again ignited the hope of a new dawn in Indian archery. The two Indian contingents that will travel to Rio with the biggest burden of expectations are the shooters and wrestlers. Already five of our famed shooters, who have made the cut for Rio, include proven veterans like Abhinav Bindra and Gagan Narang.

Among the wrestlers, India’s most decorated individual Olympian Sushil Kumar is once again the one expected to do wonders in Brazil. Yogeshwar Dutt too, if the Asian Games 2014 is any proof, has a realistic chance of winning a medal.

India’s Rio story can hardly be complete without a mention of Mary Kom and Sarita Devi. Can Mary, the mother of three, add another chapter to her already famed legend? While the two have not yet made the cut, there’s every chance they will.

Others who have a realistic chance include the likes of Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu in badminton. And finally no one would dare bet against Leander Paes and Sania Mirza. While Mirza is playing at her best, Paes is an enigma the entire world sporting fraternity has failed to decode. Someone who can win Wimbledon at 43 can surely win a second medal partnering Mirza at Rio.

We don’t expect the hockey team to achieve a podium finish. But we don’t expect them to finish at the bottom of the table either. There’s little doubt that every Indian feat in Rio will be lauded and appreciated, discussed and debated and finally memorialised. In a year from now, Rio will be ready for the Indians. The question is: Will the Indians be ready for Rio?

By Sanjay K Bissoyi

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