Decoding India’s Olympic woes

India has so far won 26 medals at the Olympics, 11 of which came in hockey between 1928 and 1980


On the all-time medal list for the Summer Games, India sits between Indonesia’s 27 and Georgia’s 25. India has the same number of gold medals, nine, as Estonia and Ireland. Photo: Bloomberg
On the all-time medal list for the Summer Games, India sits between Indonesia’s 27 and Georgia’s 25. India has the same number of gold medals, nine, as Estonia and Ireland. Photo: Bloomberg

There now appears to be a new quadrennial event that takes place along with each edition of the Olympic Games. I am referring to, of course, the bewildered global head-scratching, in the form of opinion pieces and commentary, at why India has such an abysmal record at the Olympics.

Let me just remind you—oh the agony—of those numbers. India has so far won 26 medals at the Olympics, 11 of which came in hockey between 1928 and 1980. London 2012 was a particularly good outing for India with two silvers and four bronzes. But overall, India’s haul is something of an embarrassment for such a large country. To compare, the US has won 2,401 medals so far.

On the all-time medal list for the Summer Games, India sits between Indonesia’s 27 and Georgia’s 25. India has the same number of gold medals, nine, as Estonia and Ireland. Things get infinitely worse when you start looking at these numbers on a per capita basis.

So, why are we so bad at it? The BBC’s Justin Rowlatt pointed out a few factors in a piece earlier last week. They included a lack of funding, lack of government support, inadequate sporting culture, a social bias against sports, inadequate facilities and, of course, the dominance of cricket that sucks up all sporting talent. Others have suggested that Indians don’t have the nutrition or the physique to be good at sports.

Writing for Mint On Sunday last month, Dilip D’Souza suggested that the problem boiled down to a single word: “access”. Was it simply of a matter of giving the public access to good facilities at low cost? Dilip wrote: “...is easy access like this why the US manages to produce so many world-class athletes in so many sports? How good can you get at your chosen sport, after all, if you don’t need to belong to a club and pay stiff fees just to play; if there’s instead somewhere to play nearly any time you want, for a minimal cost?”

So, last night as I sat up watching Mirabai Chanu gamble her medal hopes on one final clean & jerk lift and fail, something occurred to me. What if you gave millions of Indians access to sporting facilities, government support, a better lifestyle and better nutrition? Would that improve their chances of becoming Olympic-quality athletes?

Thought experiment? Not really. Consider the US, Great Britain and Canada. Each of these countries account for some of the largest overseas communities of Indian and Indian-origin people outside India. All three of these countries, admittedly to varying extents, offer excellent opportunities to citizens to become world-class athletes. And all of them have a history of assimilating migrants into their sports teams and sporting establishments without any major qualms.

So, I began to wonder. First of all, I looked at the demographics. What percentage of each country’s population were Indian or had Indian origins? Next, I looked at the number of Indian-origin members of the Olympic squad sent by each country to Rio. And then I did some basic, dubious mathematics.

First, let us look at Great Britain. According to the 2011 census, 2.4% of the British population is of Indian ethnicity. This is not scientific by any means, but you would reasonably assume that around 2.4% of the British squad for the Olympics—a very multicultural one—would be of Indian origin. In fact, I could find only a single one, the badminton player Rajiv Ouseph. Out of a total squad of 366. Or 0.27%.

There are around 3.1 million Indian-Americans in the US. Or around 1% of the population. By extension, you could expect to see around 5 or 6 Indian-Americans in the 554-strong US contingent in Rio. You will, in fact, find only two. Kanak Jha, the table tennis prodigy, and Rajeev Ram, the tennis player whose parents hail from Bengaluru.

Indo-Canadians, with a strength of 1.35 million, form 3.86% of Canada’s population. So, going by my dubious analysis, they should form 3.86% of the Canadian Rio squad of 314, or around 10. I found three—Keegan Pereira, Sukhi Panesar and Jagdish Gill—all in the men’s field hockey team.

In each case, the considerable Indian sections of each nation were woefully under-represented in their Olympic squads. Which makes you wonder. Maybe the problem really isn’t access or facilities or any of those things.

So, what is it then? Could be it all that hideous paneer-based dishes?

Of course, there is a simple way to solve this problem. Just make cricket an Olympic sport. Or spelling bee.

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