India Has So Few Medals at the Olympics

Indian athletes competing at the Tokyo Olympics (image from Sportskeeda.com)
Indian athletes competing at the Tokyo Olympics (image from Sportskeeda.com)

This article is a two-part series on India’s participation in the previous Olympic games and the upcoming Olympic games. Find part 1 here!

The previous article illustrates that of the many individuals who have represented India in the Olympics, relatively few were competitive. This is by all accounts, rather disappointing, considering India’s huge population and its exposure and intimate association with the Olympics for over 100 years.

The above frustration was relayed by so many of us as we watched the quadrennial spectacular in Rio de Janeiro with great interest. It was given added fillip when the inimitable Dipa Karmakar (the Produnova vault was on everyone’s lips!) just missed medaling as we all watched.  The frustration was assuaged only slightly near the end of the Games with the bronze for Sakshi Malik in women’s wrestling and later by the silver by PV Sindhu in badminton. But the sentiment lives on. It may further be noted that Pakistan has won only 10 medals so far (since 1952), eight of them Field Hockey. And Bangladesh has so far (since 1972) won none – the most populous country in the world without an Olympic medal.  

One wonders about this pervasive shortcoming for the entire subcontinent. The oft-cited reason is the lack of sufficient facilities, training, and economic incentives. For the most part, I do not fully agree. I am thoroughly convinced that to be an Olympic medalist you most of all need to have superior “inherent natural ability” (talent). I submit that without superior talent, any amount of training, facilities, or opportunities will not an Olympic champion make.  And in India (and Pakistan and Bangladesh) there apparently is a severe dearth (not total absence) of talent needed to succeed in the sports currently competed in the Olympics. And that unfortunately does not include cricket. 

Of the children of Indian origin who grew up in the US, genuine success in sports is few and far between – in sharp contrast to their glaring successes in Spelling Bees, Math Olympiads, and Chess. This is in spite of them being afforded the same opportunities as all others. The common reason put forward is that they predominantly have a white-collar background. 

However, the situation is not much different in the UK, which has a much larger proportion of a working-class population from the Indian subcontinent. But the only one coming close is Bengali-Kolkata mix, Neil Taylor, who represented Wales in Euro 2016. While on soccer, I contend that if we had talent in the game, we would have had a presence in the English and European leagues like so many from Africa. We have been well exposed to the game for well over a hundred years. However, our best, Baichung Bhutia, Sunil Chhetri, and Masood Fakhri of Pakistan earlier could not establish themselves in the English league. Mention may be made of war-torn Iraq, whose soccer team not only qualified for the Olympics but drew all its three group matches, including with Brazil, the ultimate gold medalist.

The source of talent in sports is not easily defined in specific terms. Different skill sets are required for different sports, and thus, different physical attributes. For some sports it is easy to identify – you have to be tall for basketball and well-built for American football. But for other sports, it is not readily apparent. There is more to physical attributes than height and weight. They involve myriad characteristics like upper body strength, speed of hand and foot, reaction times, lung capacity, wrist strength, hand-eye coordination, length of arms, and size of palms. Also, the ability to withstand pain and fatigue may be part of talent, though that might not strictly qualify as a physical attribute. Take a look at  Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimming legend. He has been described as having a freakish physique with a large wingspan, high lung capacity, and flipper feet.

The racial/ethnic element in Olympics sports success clearly jumps out at me in no uncertain terms

2016 US Olympics Track and Field Trials (Image from Wikimedia and under the Creative Commons License 2.0)
2016 US Olympics Track and Field Trials (Image from Wikimedia and under the Creative Commons License 2.0)

The superior success of black athletes from the US, the Caribbeans, Canada, or England in the speed events of track and field — the sprints, horizontal jumps, the hurdles — does not escape anyone.  They are known to have a common West African ancestry for the most part.  Significantly, countries in West Africa like Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Ghana, who have similar ancestry, have also produced some world-class sprinters and long jumpers. By contrast, the success of the same people in the longer distances, the throws, the high jump, and pole vault are a mere shadow of their success in the speed events.

Ethiopians and Kenyans from East Africa surely belong to a different stock with their primacy in the middle and longer distances (they cannot run distances shorter than 800 meters it seems!). Incidentally, other small countries in the region like Somalia, Djibouti, and Burundi have also been competitive in these distances in the Olympics.

It also appears that the Mongolian races stand out for their extremely fast hand-foot combinations. They are so overwhelming in low-weight boxing, badminton, gymnastics, and table tennis. I have to note that many successful boxers are from India (Mary Kom is the best of them!) and from the impoverished northeast, where the Mongolian racial characteristics are so prevalent. It is hard to think there are better training and facilities there than in the rest of India. There seems to be some special talent in weightlifting and wrestling in Turkey, Iran, and contiguous countries like Azerbijan and Kazakastan. Finally, there is the example of the little island of Fiji with a population of less than a million winning a gold medal in rugby in 2016. Thirty-eight percent of the Fijian population is of Indian origin — there was not a single Indian on the Fijian team –all were what they call native Fijians (of Melanesian and some Polynesian origin).  

Many of my above observations may not be tenable as increased globalization takes hold and new technological advances appear on the scene. Changed political and economic situations may also dictate newer realities. Predictably, there will be increased exposure to different sports for different segments of the population along with better training. I am reminded that before the 1960 Olympics in Rome and the unforgettable victory of Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia in the marathon, and the exploits of Kipchoge Keino of Kenya and others from 1964. Kenya and Ethiopia, which so overwhelmingly dominate the middle and long distances of track and field, were absent from our sports consciousness.  

Similar must have been in baseball before Jackie Robinson’s entry into the major league in 1947, which opened up the huge talent pool for the racial diversity in baseball. Similarly, there was the arrival of China into the Olympic fold in 1984 and before that in the Asian Games in 1974.  It was a quantum shift in the Olympic scene. Similarly, it is possible that new technology and changing situations, such as the advent of artificial surfaces unsuited to our style of play, exodus of Anglo-Indians from India, and more nations taking up the game seriously, all may have resulted in the loss of the primacy in Field Hockey for India and Pakistan.   

I seriously wonder if such changed situations discussed above will usher in much hope for increased Olympic success for India. After all, India has had reasonably long exposures to the outside world in all the major Olympic sports like soccer, field hockey, track and field, swimming, volleyball, wrestling, weightlifting, and boxing, and often had decent opportunities to show their mettle. We have, sometimes, competed creditably in the Commonwealth and Asian Games, but repeatedly came up short in the larger arena of the Olympics. This, I would attribute largely to a lack of sufficient talent.

To many, insufficient or inadequate training, facilities, and economic incentives are the prime causes for India’s ‘abject failure’ in the Olympics over the years.  The issue needs to be examined more closely, beyond this blanket statement.  In 2014, India won 57 medals (11 gold) in the Asian Games and 55 medals (14 gold) in the Commonwealth Games. In 2018, India won 70 medals (16 gold) in the Asian Games and 66 medals (20gold) in the Commonwealth Games. The medals tell me there is a reasonable amount of training and infrastructure out there and that our talent level is good enough to succeed in the Asian and Commonwealth Games, but insufficient for Olympic medals.

Specifics

Dipa Karmakar (Image from the Olympics website)
Dipa Karmakar (Image from the Olympics website)

The case of Dipa Karmakar is instructive. For one hailing from Tripura, a remote corner of the country, she could still avail herself of adequate gymnastic facilities and a capable coach in Mr. Nandi. Dipa went thru the ranks from junior to senior (no lone wolf!), reflecting a reasonable infrastructure behind her, however inept. Mr. Nandi has hailed the Sports Authority of India (SAI) for its help.

Sakshi Malik’s experience in her Haryana village with all its backwardness and prejudices did not stop her from acquiring a competent coach from Karnataka, trained by SAI. Along with the SAI, which has its presence in every state, there are sports institutes in many parts of the country, such as in Patiala and Gwalior, turning out players and coaches.  There is the admirable facility for badminton run by the former All England Champion, PV Gopichand, which has turned out Olympic medalists Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu among others. 

So, we do have our coaches and our facilities, however insufficient and inept.  We have also to appreciate that for a vast and poor country like India, our utilization of our limited resources for sports have to be balanced against bigger priorities such as infrastructure development, industrialization, alleviation of poverty, justice and crime prevention, defense of the country, education, good governance. All these surely cannot be compromised for mere Olympic medals.

I am curious how our training and financial incentives compare with other similar developing countries on a per-capita basis, something not easy to put one’s hands-on. Instead, I chose three countries at random: Brazil, Thailand, and Nigeria in three continents to find out their Olympic medal hauls.

Brazil had won 24 gold, 31 silver, and 57 bronze.

Thailand had won 9 gold, 7 silver, and 13 bronze.

Nigeria had won 3 gold, 8 silver, and 12 bronze (including a gold and a silver in soccer and a gold in Men’s 4×400 meters relay). 

These countries are by no means economic powerhouses.  It is therefore very unlikely that their sportsmen would have better facilities and economic prospects than in India to spur the pursuit of their sporting careers. 

The Olympics have just begun in Tokyo. I, an Olympic fanatic am already in front of the TV watching the grand extravaganza, albeit in front of empty stadiums. Success or failure of Indians will only flash fleetingly in my mind. I will root for whoever seems hopeful and can bring us some medals. They have been so few and far between!

In the meantime, I keep on hoping like many of us for cricket to be included in the Olympics in the future. We would definitely be contenders for the gold.

Go back and read part 1!


Partha Sircar has a BE in Civil Engineering from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, India, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a 53-year resident of the United States, including the last 36 years in California. He has worked in several engineering organizations over the years and is now retired for over eight years. He loves to write and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].


 

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