The gutsy boxers of Bhiwani have perhaps never heard of Alfred Marshall. But I think that something the great economist wrote more than a hundred years ago, on why some activities tend to flourish in certain towns and regions, has echoes in the Bhiwani of today. And what Marshall and other subsequent economists have written about geographical specialization and clusters could help India cobble together a better strategy for the 2012 Olympics in London.
Online encyclopedia Wikipedia quite aptly describes Bhiwani as “the Kashi of boxing”. Three pugilists from the town — Akhil Kumar, Vijender Kumar and Jitendra Kumar — went through to the quarter finals while Vijender Kumar went on to win a bronze medal in the recently concluded Beijing Olympics. There has been a flood of newspaper reports since then on the vibrant boxing culture in Bhiwani.
Marshall was one of the first economists to ask why certain occupations and industries tend to cluster in a particular town: cutlery in the Sheffield and pottery in the Staffordshire of his times, for example. “When an industry has thus chosen a locality for itself, it is likely to stay there for long: So great are the advantages with people following the same skilled trade get from near neighbourhood to one another. The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air, and children learn from many of them unconsciously.”
Boxing is clearly in the air in Bhiwani, in the sense Marshall wrote about. The town seems to have a boxing ecosystem just as Bangalore has an innovation ecosystem or Mumbai once had a cricketing ecosystem. And the success of the three fighters coming out of Bhiwani clubs shows that specialization works in sports as well as it does in business. Furthermore, just as certain towns are good at certain sports, it seems that entire countries too have core competencies in the sporting arena.
This simple fact should help Indian sports administrators and private charities design a sensible strategy for the next Olympics in London. And it should be based on doing what India seems to be good at.
Take a look at how the top teams collected their Olympic medals. One would have thought that sporting superpowers such as the US, China and Russia would have had their medals evenly spread around all types of sports. That is not so.
The US picked up a total of 110 medals in Beijing. Sixty of them came from athletics and swimming (the latter no doubt helped by a man called Michael Phelps). Thirty-five of Russia’s 72 medals came from athletics, weightlifting and wrestling. Great Britain won 33 medals in cycling, sailing, rowing and kayaking; its grand total was 47. Australia won 20 of its 46 medals in swimming while it bagged five more in canoeing and kayaking. Thirteen of Japan’s 25 medals came from judo and wrestling.
China has its medals more evenly spread across various sporting pursuits, perhaps a reflection of its authoritarian and state-driven sporting set up that perhaps mirrors a similar economic programme where the government pushes the development of industries it thinks China should be strong in. But even China has stood out in a few disciplines such as shooting, diving and gymnastics.
Looking at the way various countries have won Olympic medals this year, there is a clear sense that what works in the world of economics seems to work in the world of sports as well. As more countries become participants in the “market” for Olympic medals, each individual country tends to focus on doing what it is best at. Or: Division of labour increases in tandem with the growth of the market. That we have known since the days of Adam Smith.
And it is perhaps the way forward for India as well — both the Indian Olympic Association and the various private foundations that are ready to fund sporting excellence.
The tricky question is how to identify what sports India is really good at. There is a centralized and managerial way of doing this: Identify a few fashionable or influential sports and say that India should have a dominant presence in them. This approach is close to what proponents of national industrial policy say: Let’s identify a few prestigious industries such as semiconductor manufacturing or car making and support them with money and subsidies.
The other approach is a more experimental and market-oriented one: watch where Indians are winning — either in global markets or sporting tournaments—and then ask what can be done to help those who are active in these areas. In other words, let the markets rather than bureaucrats pick the potential winners.
There are already some signs that are evident to even couch potatoes: India’s best medal chances were in shooting, wrestling, boxing and court games such as badminton and tennis. Let’s build on them.
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