National income and the Olympics

The theory, that higher national income equals automatic sporting success, suggests that the size of human resources is not important, it is the quality of it as developed through high income


Sporting excellence is not a by-product of a wealthy nation. It is reflective of dynamism in a society, pushing the individual to excellence, developing and rewarding a competitive spirit, rewarding physical achievement. Photo: PTI
Sporting excellence is not a by-product of a wealthy nation. It is reflective of dynamism in a society, pushing the individual to excellence, developing and rewarding a competitive spirit, rewarding physical achievement. Photo: PTI

Why are Indians so bad at athletics? The Rio Olympics will start in a few weeks and we will not win much there. Those of us who like watching the human sprint and jump and throw will be doing so to watch quality performances. Not, as Chinese and Jamaican and American watchers might, in expectation of a podium finish.

I was talking about this with a very bright individual the other day and he put it down to per capita income. When nations became wealthy, they became different in many ways and one of these ways is that they produce medals.

Let’s look at the current per capita income (according to the Atlas method of The World Bank) of the top 10 nations at the 2012 Olympics: the US ($54,960, or around Rs.36.8 lakh), China ($7,820), Great Britain ($43,340), the Russian Federation ($11,400), South Korea ($27,440), Germany ($45,790), France ($40,580), Australia ($60,070), Italy ($32,790), and Hungary ($12,990).

India, at $1,590 is not in this league, and that explains why we fare poorly. This theory, that higher national income equals automatic sporting success, suggests that the size of human resources is not important, it is the quality of it as developed through high income. There is one problem with this construct and we’ll come to that later.

My interlocutor said this theory may be extended to our other problems, which would all stand automatically resolved when our per capita GDP matches that of the developed nations. And so: When national income goes up, nations win medals. When national income goes up, the quality of education goes up. When national income goes up, people become compliant and start paying direct taxes.

Such a high-income society becomes less turbulent, less chaotic, more orderly. This explains why the 10 nations on that list above are so different in every way from India.

In the 2012 Olympic games, which produced our best result, India won four bronze and two silver medals. In the seven decades since independence, we have only won one gold in an individual event, in 2008.

Let’s come to the problem with this income-levels equal athletics-success construct. China, which we are keen to see as a rival, has averaged over 70 medals a games over the last two decades.

This success is not recent. It won 32 medals (15 gold) in 1984, which was the first time it participated in three decades because of a dispute with Taiwan over the name “China”. It won 31 in 1988. China’s per capita income in all those years was much below our current rate. So if national income is the main predictor of athletics success, then China is either an outlier or we have a problem in our thesis.

The other problem is that India is neither small nor uniform. It has a significant upper class, which is the size of a European nation. This privileged elite has had access to quality education for three generations and it has escaped the problems of malnourishment and other things which affect the majority.

This elite has access to institutions—neighbourhoods, schools, clubs and so on—that others do not and they do not suffer from the disability of being citizens of a poor nation. This elite, which is connected and which numbers at least a few million, is insulated from our construct of low-income failure and should produce medals. It does not. Indeed, it is instructive to know that three of the six 2012 medallists were not from such a background. Wrestler Sushil Kumar, for instance, is a bus driver’s son.

Meanwhile, Cuba (anywhere between $4,036-12,475) won five golds in 2012 and it has a population less than 1% of ours. I think that high national income is only an incidental indicator of athletic success. It is not causal.

I fear, in fact, that the theory has it the other way around. It is nations who win medals who develop high per capita income. Sporting excellence is not a by-product of a wealthy nation. It is reflective of dynamism in a society, pushing the individual to excellence, developing and rewarding a competitive spirit, rewarding physical achievement. It is nations that produce quality education despite a lack of resources that become wealthy in time. It is societies which cooperate and produce order, and where individuals voluntarily submit to order, that per capita income goes up.

National income is not a particularly interesting statistic in many ways. It cannot always predict behaviour. In India, even those who would be considered poor employ servants. The belief is that this will vanish when wages go up. That we only have servants because of the availability of millions to do labour cheaply. What if the problem is not linked to wage but to attitude to physical work?

If that is so, then we are going to have a serious problem breaking into that top 10 list of medal winners.

I’m not saying it’s never going to happen. What I am saying is that national income is not going up till we sort out the other stuff that this argument sees as merely incidental. To be a high-income nation, we need to be more sporty, more efficient, more compliant as a people.

We’re a screwed up society in many ways. Accepting this is a start.

Aakar Patel is the executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at aakar_amnesty.

Write to Aakar at replytoall@livemint.com

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