15 Jun 2017 15:25 IST

How Swachh Bharat can yield us an Usain Bolt

Our country of 1.2 billion people, has won only a grand total of 28 Olympic medals

The champion runner who is to retire in August?

The same. The flamboyant Jamaican sprinter is arguably one of the greatest athletes of all time, and the fastest human in history. ‘Lightning Bolt’ is also the only sprinter ever to win the ‘triple double’: gold medals in 100m and 200m in three consecutive Olympics.

Sure, but what’s he got to do with Swachh Bharat?

We’ll get to that in a bit. To connect the dots, you have to understand the ecosystem in Jamaica, a country of 2.8 million people, that produced not just one Usain Bolt, but an army of prodigiously gifted athletes who have performed way above their league at the Olympics. Indicatively, since 1948, Jamaicans have won a total of 77 Olympic medals, all but one of which were in athletics.

What’s India’s record like?

Pretty dismal. Our country of 1.2 billion people, which has participated in the Olympics since 1900, has won a grand total of 28 Olympic medals; eight of its nine gold medals were won in field hockey, and in athletics, it has won only two silver medals in all these years.

So, what’s your point?

To understand why India underperforms in athletics (as in many sports), it helps to know what makes Jamaica an athletic outperformer.

Is there something in the Jamaican air?

There are many theories, including some fanciful ones, to account for Jamaica’s record in churning out super sprinters. One of them claimed Jamaicans are endowed with a ‘speed gene’, but DNA studies have debunked notions of a genetic predisposition. In any case, Jamaicans trace their ancestry to West Africa, which isn’t exactly an athletic superpower. Then there’s the ‘yam’ theory.

The what?

Errol Morrison, former president of the University of Technology in Kingston, who has studied Jamaican sporting prowess, says the country’s staple diet of yams and green bananas accounts in some measure for the excellence. But that too stands disproved: many other countries where people eat these tubers don’t produce champs.

Among other reasons cited by researchers at the University of West Indies is the aluminium-rich soil; evidently, aluminiun absorbed through a pregnant woman’s diet helps the foetus develop muscle fibers that are used in sprinting.

So what’s the secret sauce?

Jamaican-born Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has pointed to arguably the most convincing explanation: a public health campaign in Jamaica since the 1920s, which focussed on hygiene, clean water and fecal and mosquito control.

Think of it as a ‘Swachh Jamaica’ campaign. The success of the effort, spearheaded by Rockefeller Foundation specialists, yielded successive generations of healthy children who took to running, the ‘cheapest’ sport, and which was nurtured by a sporting culture.

Certainly sounds plausible.

Data backs it up well. As historical demographer James Riley notes in Poverty and Life Expectancy: The Jamaican Paradox, even on a low per-capita income, the country dramatically improved its life expectancy, from 36 in 1920 to 75 today. Currently, Jamaica’s child mortality rate is 16; India’s is 48. Jamaica ranks 94th on the Human Development Index; India is at a lowly 131.

And Swachh Bharat is the key?

A public health campaign may or may not yield us Olympic champs as a spinoff. But an earnest campaign, as opposed to the photo-op-driven one we saw in India, can certainly save millions of young lives and raise them to good health. And that’s worth a lot more than an Olympic gold medal.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)

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