Make India a sporting nation

India can compete better in the international arena if different states are developed as centers of excellence for different sports

Two econometers, Bernard AB and Busse MR, in an article in The Journal of Economics and Statistics (February 2004) attempted to establish that “total GDP is the best indicator of national Olympic performance”. They also claimed that host countries are “likely to win an additional 1.8% more medals beyond what would be predicted by their GDP alone.” Since then, many studies have attempted to understand the factors that most influence a nation’s ability to win medals at the Olympics. One such work after the Rio Olympics showed that medals per hundred billion dollars (based on purchasing power parity data from 2015) are highest in some Caribbean countries and lowest in some Asian and African countries. These results largely contradict the assumption that total GDP is the best indicator of a nation’s performance at the Olympics.

Factors determining performance

Many factors are important in determining a nation’s performance in various sports. Beyond a threshold, a country’s average standard of living and the size of the country’s population can be important determinants of its performance at the Olympic Games. The size of total GDP is not very large in countries like India where a large segment is fighting hunger. A person in poor health can never be a good athlete. In countries where there are high levels of stunting, malnutrition and anemia, we cannot expect good athletes. Thus, the countries of South Asia and the countries of sub-Saharan Africa do not fit into the econometric models built on total GDP.

Genetic factors are no less important either. The United States, Australia and the Netherlands are powers in swimming, but not China. Maybe tall people have an advantage in swimming or basketball, but height is not important for shooting or gymnastics. China excels in shooting with the United States and Germany. East Asian countries do better at table tennis than Western countries. Russia, Eastern European countries and Central Asian countries do well in amateur boxing, while China and Central Asian countries do better in weightlifting and wrestling.

Mobilizing resources for world-class training offers an advantage to athletes. Such an infrastructure makes the United States the superpower of athletics and gymnastics, Germany of horseback riding, and the United Kingdom of diving, sailing and cycling. For poor countries, creating such infrastructure is a luxury.

During colonial rule, India was exposed to international sporting events earlier than many Asian and African countries. The Calcutta Football League, for example, is Asia’s oldest football league. The Durand Cup is the oldest existing football tournament in Asia. This exposure gave India an advantage over other “third world” countries in the 1950s and early 1960s. Resources in India were dispersed among sports disciplines. As more and more nations began to enter the international sporting arena, India’s relative position began to decline from the 1970s.

Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, Singapore and Malaysia may fall behind India in the medal tally at the Asian Games, but ahead of it at the Olympics. This is mainly because India is moderately good at many sports, but not good enough to be the best at any of them. In contrast, Jamaica did well at the Olympics in the sprint and Kenya won medals in the long-distance race. They perform better than India although they are not great sporting nations. In recent years, India has shown promise in shooting, amateur boxing, wrestling, gymnastics and badminton. We need to focus more on sports where the physical build of an average Indian will not be at a disadvantage.

One state, one sport

States must be integrated more broadly into India’s sports policy. Can’t we develop different states as centers of excellence for different sports? People from different states have different eating habits and are building themselves up. It is not impossible to develop training infrastructure for different sports in different parts of the country depending on the inclination of the people in that region and their habits and constitution. Unless we start to prepare our children, who show potential, for international sports, India can hardly succeed at the Olympics. Individual talent alone cannot move us forward. The “One State, One Sport” policy can be a game-changer in India.

India’s best performance at the Olympics was in London (2012) where she won two silver and four bronze and placed 56th in the medal standings. At the Rio Olympics (2016), with a silver and a bronze medal, India’s rank dropped to 67. Whatever the econometricians’ predictions, if India can find a place in the top 50 of the sports nations in the medal tally of the rescheduled Summer Olympics in Tokyo from July 23, that will be good enough to boost the morale of the nation.

Gautam Bhattacharya is a former public servant

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