Who gained from the Asiad’s growth since 1982?
With the rise in number of events, a clutch of nations has benefited from the Asian Games’ expansion, but India failed to ride the tailwind, shows data
The year 1982 was a seminal moment for Indian sport. Delhi hosted the ninth Asian Games, in what turned out to be the first big sporting event in India, cricket or otherwise, to be made for television. In the long and layered journey of building a sporting culture, it was India’s small start.
In the ninth Asian Games, India finished fourth, with 57 medals. That was a record haul at the time and only the third time till then that India’s count had exceeded 50.
While India gained from the tailwind that comes from being the host nation in 1982, there was reason to believe India’s returns would get better, especially as the Games became bigger.
Between 1982 and 2018, the Asian Games expanded, and how.
More countries, more sports, more events—and more medals. The number of events has increased three-fold: from 147 in 1982 to 465 in 2018. The new additions, which include relatively niche regional-based games such as Kabaddi and Sepak Takraw, make it the largest sports games in the world. In comparison, the 2016 Olympics only had 306 events and the 2018 Commonwealth games had 275.
With three times as many medals up for grabs, an expansion like this should have worked to the advantage of nations with a wide sporting base.
China, Japan and South Korea—the three countries that finished above India in 1982—benefitted from the expansion in large measure, but not so much for India.
Four broad narratives flow from the Games’ evolution between 1982 and 2018, and these narratives occasionally intersect with corresponding trajectories of economic growth.
The first narrative is of the big becoming bigger. Between 1982 and 2014 (the reference year used here for medal counts as the 2018 Games are still on), China increased its medal count by 125%—a period that has also coincided with its elevation on the world economic stage—and Japan by a relatively modest 30%. But South Korea made the biggest gains: 145% and leapfrogged Japan in the process (chart 1).
In percentage terms, though, the share of the big three in the medals tally has dropped from 65% to 53%. This brings us to the second narrative: a clutch of nations whose presence in 1982 was modest, but they now have significant pockets of performance. For example, Thailand went from 10 medals to 47, Hong Kong from 1 to 43, Vietnam from 1 to 36.
Five of the six countries in this set are from East Asia or Southeast Asia. The sole exception in this set is Iran, which has seen its medal count rocket from 12 to 57 (chart 2).
The third narrative is of new nations—the count of nations increased from 33 in 1982 to 46 in 2018—establishing themselves as mid-table contenders.
There have been three in particular: Kazakhstan (84 medals in 2014), Chinese Taipei (51) and Uzbekistan (45) (chart 3).
There’s a sharp drop from these three to the other new entrants: the next best in 2014 from this set was Macau (7 medals).
Since the medal pool expanded, not many countries suffered a significant erosion in medal count.
However, some have suffered an erosion in name and stature, which is the fourth narrative. In 1982, countries in the upper half of the medals table and on an upward trajectory would have been tipped to grow in an expansionary scenario, but that didn’t happen.
Two stand out in particular. North Korea went from 56 medals in 1982 to a boycott in 1986 to its highest-ever tally of 82 in 1990, before sliding to 36 in 2014.
India was the other prominent under-performer that didn’t grab the opportunity expansion provided.
Failing to ride the tailwind from 1982, its medal count languished in the 20s and 30s for two decades, and it ended up on the sidelines as the first three narratives played out (chart 4).
In 2006, it breached a half-century once again, a milestone it has met in every Games since. With three days to go in the 2018 Games, India is at 58 medals, and seems on track to better its best-ever tally of 65 medals at Guangzhou, China (chart 5).
Could 2018 be the springboard for India that 1982 didn’t turn to be?
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