With two silvers and four bronzes, India has achieved an Olympic double “hat-trick”—tied with Ireland in the middle of the pack, but at the bottom on a per capita basis. While this is as many medals as India took home in 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008 combined, it is a far cry from the “century” of gold, silver, and bronze hardware that the United States has bagged.
As India has begun flexing its information technology muscle and concomitant economic rise, many Indians have bemoaned their country’s less muscular showing in London. Some members of the younger generation are particular piqued that the only champions that India has produced in their lifetime have been Sachin Tendulkar and Viswanathan Anand, national heroes whose pursuits (cricket and chess, respectively) have no platform at the Olympics. The youth have little patience for the Gandhian philosophy that demands unattachment to results: “Winning or losing is no concern of yours. You will simply try your best, and I am of course there to assist you” (M. K. Gandhi quoting Kevalram Dave in his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth).
Substitute “Arjuna” for “M. K. Gandhi” and “Krishna” for “Kevalram Dave” to hear the Bhagavad Gita’s sacred song that Gandhi’s life echoed. As Arjuna’s charioteer on the battlefield, Krishna espoused karma-yoga and counseled the despondent prince to do his duty without attachment to results.
So India’s Hindu ethos may have its citizens—Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, agnostic—resigned to not be despondent as long as Indian athletes are trying their best. But the country’s superpower aspirations to win in the corporate boardroom, from the classroom chalkboard, and on the swimming diving board has those same citizens asking if India is trying its best to win Olympic gold?
While it may be a stretch to think of sport as a metaphor for the battlefield, how can we not think of the medal count as a less bloody arms race between nations. Indeed, there is a correlation between economic might and sporting power. At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, when American might was at its apogee, the United States won 174 medals and China took home 32. A quarter of a century later in Beijing, a rising China celebrated with 100 medals and a declining America slipped to 110. Of course, there are many factors besides GDP at play: the USSR boycotted the 1984 Olympics, home-field advantage consistently bumps up the home country’s medal count, and micropower countries such as Jamaica can go up and down based on star performances by athletes such as Usain Bolt. But the evidence is in: Olympic gold follows economic gold.
So the natural follow-up question one might have is, “Why hasn’t Indian Olympic performance gone up with the country’s economic rise?” This is a fair question for sports economists, but the question that is in keeping with the spirit of this column is whether India should expend the requisite human energy and financial capital to succeed on the world sporting stage? Gandhi would have thought it folly that the Chinese spent $40 billion to stage the 2008 Olympics. Even the more frugal British spent $14 billion for this year’s sports extravaganza. In the false promise of prideful propaganda, countries spend like parents who go bankrupt while sparing no expense at their children’s weddings; a classic case is the $16 billion 2004 Athens affair which contributed to Greece’s debt crisis.
A study from the University of South Australia concluded that one gold medal costs $37 million in training budget. Imagine those dutiful dollars (responsible rupees? karmic coins?) training Indian students on something less violent than boxing and more meaningful than swimming laps faster than Michael Phelps. Closer to home, as many American children prepare for the upcoming school year, perhaps an illuminating arithmetic problem could find its way into education policy: 46 gold medals at $37 million each equal $1.7 billion opportunity cost. With their state’s deficit in the billions, the campuses of the University of California—arguably part of the finest higher education system the world has produced—have responded to the significant budget shortfalls with not insignificant tuition increases and faculty losses.
After the feel-good buzz of The Who closing the London Olympics with a nostalgic performance of “My Generation,” future generations throughout the world might pause to wonder if climbing Mt. Olympus is worth the cost.
Rajesh C. Oza is a Change Management consultant, who also facilitates the interpersonal development of MBA students at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.