The four-year wait for sports enthusiasts will end when the Rio Olympics begins tonight. India is sending it biggest ever contingent of 118, emboldened by its best ever performance at the Games in London 2012, where it won six medals — two silvers and four bronzes.
Indians have for long had a love-hate relationship with the Olympics. In the past, when India used to often scrape through the Olympics with a solitary medal, one question used to dominate drawing room conversations, newspaper columns and TV debates – how is it that a country of more than a billion people fails to produce a dozen odd medal winners at the Olympics?
But after India’s encouraging performance in the London Olympics it’s tempting to say that India may have turned the corner.
In the past especially during the long decades of the cold War it was a two-horse race between the US and the erstwhile Soviet Union at the Olympics sweepstakes. Sporting achievements in the Olympics was one way of proving whether capitalism or socialism was superior.
But after the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, China emerged as a major sporting power.
The correlation between a country’s performance at the Olympics and its economic performance has come in for a fair bit of comment in the past. It’s logical to assume that a country which has a strong economy will do well at the Olympics as it has more money to spend on sports and to develop athletes capable of winning medals.
China’s spectacular growth in the last three decades and its astonishing performance in the Olympics since it started participating again in the 1984 games is evidence to this. (The People’s Republic of China participated in the Olympics for the first time in 1952, Helsinki.) Since 1984 it has won 473 medals including 126 Golds. It has been in the top three since the 2000 Sydney Olympics. And in this period China has consistently posted above 10 per cent growth, though it is now going through a difficult period.
Now where does India figure in this? Since the 1991 reforms India’s economy has grown and has performed creditably to post over eight per cent growth. An appreciable number of people have been pulled out of poverty though it can be argued that inequality has increased in this period. But that has happened in China too.
Crucially, in India, its strong economic performance has not quite translated into medals in Olympics. This clearly shows that there are a lot of social and cultural factors that determine sporting success.
How do you explain the success of countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia especially in middle- and long-distance running? Kenya has won the Gold in the 3,000-metre steeplechase continuously since the 1984 Los Angeles Games. It has won 86 Olympic medals overall, of which 25 are Golds. Ethiopia’s exploits in long distance running both in men’s and women’s categories are legendary. Its Olympics medal tally since is 45, with 21 Golds. India, by contrast, has won 26 medals, nine of them Golds.
Kenya’s GDP is $63.4 billion and grew at 5.6 per cent in 2015. Ethiopia’s GDP is comparable at $61.54 per cent but grew at an impressive 9.6 per cent in 2015.
In contrast China is a $13-trillion economy and India’s GDP is $2.07 trillion.
The fact is India has never really paid too much attention to Olympic sports till now. After the initial hand-wringing at the end of every Olympics, Indians are happy going back to cricket. India is essentially a one-sport nation where cricket lords every every other sport. Hockey used to be popular but its decline coincided with the ascent of cricket after India’s World Cup victory in 1983. Though hockey has some recent revival, with India reaching the Champions Trophy finals, a podium finish at the Olympics is a distinct possibility.
Goldman Sachs in a recent report has predicted eight medals for India including one Gold, two more than its London haul.
So the hopes are high and, given India’s record at the Games, an improvement over its London performance would be an impressive performance.
This time the Indian athletes have got substantial institutional support from the government, corporates and bodies such as the Olympic Gold Quest. The Olympic Gold Quest is a not-for-profit body started by Geet Sethi, former World Billiards champion, with the help of Prakash Padukone, former All-England Badminton champion, and Viren Rasquinha, former India hockey player, to identify potential medal winning athletes and support them with the best training, coaching, infrastructure and nutrition facilities. It is supporting 21 Rio-bound athletes.
So will Rio be the turning point in India’s Olympic saga? We will know soon enough!