The 2008 Olympics will open on Friday in Beijing in a burst of pomp and pageantry. Much has been said and written about how China will use the event to showcase its achievements over the past three decades, as it moved from being a Maoist cesspool to its current status as one of the world’s emerging superpowers. The famous Bird’s Nest stadium, the 36 other Olympic facilities, the gleaming new hotels, the super-fast trains from Beijing to Tianjin (where the football games will be played), the world’s biggest airport terminal in the capital city — each is meant to impress.
China is not unique in this respect. Japan did something similar when it hosted the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. “The autumn of 1964, when the Olympics came to Tokyo, was to be the greatest ceremonial celebration of Japan’s peaceful, post-war democratic revival. No longer a defeated nation in disgrace, Japan was respectable now. After years of feverish construction, of highways and stadiums, hotels, sewers, overhead railways, and subway lines, Tokyo was ready to receive the world with a grand display of love, peace, and sports,” writes Ian Buruma in his 2003 book on the rise of Japan, Inventing Japan: From Empire to Economic Miracle.
Familiar, isn’t it?
Economic resurgence and hosting the Olympics seem to go hand in hand. There is a common feature between the Tokyo and Beijing Olympics — and indeed most of the Olympics held across the world in the postwar years. And this common feature could offer us some clues about when India will be ready to host its first Olympics.
Most countries have hosted their first post-war Olympics when their average incomes have moved into a tight band of between $4,000 and $8,000, calculated using 1990 purchasing power parity, or PPP, dollars. I have taken the incomes data from economic historian Angus Maddison’s monumental research into the world economy since the dawn of the christian era. The record suggests that India should try to host its first Olympics when its average income is somewhere in that range.
Consider two Asian countries that had just about emerged out of mass poverty when they hosted the Olympics, to tell the world that they have arrived. Japan had a per capita income of $5,668 in 1964. South Korea had a per capita income of $7,621 in 1988, the year the Games came to Seoul. Both had recorded around 15 years of astonishing growth by the time the world’s best athletes came to their capital cities to win medals and glory. In another part of the world, Mexico had a per capita income of $4,073 in 1968, a year marked by the slaughter of protesting students to ensure a peaceful Olympics and Black Power salutes on the victory stand. It was not economic success but political unrest that made those Games memorable, a risk that the Chinese are well aware of.
But the incomes rule is not restricted to emerging Asian and Latin American nations alone. Interestingly, even more developed nations had average incomes in the same range when they hosted their first post-war Olympics. Here are some of the relevant numbers: London in 1948 ($6,746), Helsinki in 1952 ($4,674), Melbourne in 1956 ($8,108), Rome in 1960 ($5,916) and Moscow in 1980 ($6,427). The exceptions are few, such as Munich in 1972 ($11,481), Montreal in 1976 ($14,902) and Atlanta in 1992 ($23,298). But when Hitler and his thugs tried to use the Berlin Olympics in 1936 to showcase their achievements, Germany had a per capita income of $4,451.
I am not suggesting any Iron Law of Olympic Bids. But it does appear that countries need strong economies to convince the International Olympic Committee that they can play host to the world’s best sportspeople and thousands of tourists. You need to be rich enough to do the job.
So, when will India be ready? India’s average income right now is around $3,000 in PPP. That is at current rates, and not in the 1990 dollars that I have used in the earlier examples. But a comparison with China today would suffice. Average Chinese PPP incomes will be around $5,500 this year.
How long will it take India to reach that level? Assuming current rates of economic growth and population growth, it will need at least another decade to reach there. In other words, India could think of bidding for the 2020 Games.
China will be showcasing more than its physical infrastructure in Beijing this year. It also wants to prove that it has the world’s best athletes. A quick tour of various online betting sites suggests that China is expected to win more medals this year than any other country. As far as winning medals goes, India is unlikely to emulate its northern neighbour by 2020.
Sad, but true.
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