Yes, medals show a nation has the will to excel

I am always embarrassed by India’s wretched showing in the Olympics, which is a metaphor for the two things that haunt India—lack of a strategic intent and lack of leadership. It is not that Indians are physically weak or incapable of competing at Olympic levels; in many sports at the junior level, Indians do very well indeed. The failure is in developing that early promise. This is like that devastating remark about Brazil: it is condemned to always have potential.

One failure is in identifying an overarching goal, that of being the best in the world. Consider that this is an implicit assumption made by Americans: that America is the best of the best. Similarly, China has historically viewed itself as the Middle Kingdom and the center of civilization, deeming all others to be barbarians. But Indians have been content to be second best, sporting losers.

In India, people actually say, and with conviction, “What is important is participating, not winning.” My jaw almost hit the floor the first time someone assured me of this. I protested that the only thing that counts is winning, good sportsmanship be damned. The Indian contingent genuinely does go to the Olympics to form part of the scenery. Remember On the Waterfront and failed boxer Marlon Brando, “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum.” Indians are happy to be nobodies.

The second failure is in leadership. No political or business leader takes any interest in sports. For instance, track queen P.T. Usha’s school, intended to produce Olympic athletes, is struggling for funds. Promising sportsmen have to scrounge for jobs and small stipends so that they can feed themselves and buy the equipment they need.

A Kerala girl who was a member of the national rowing team committed suicide because she simply couldn’t afford to train. Contrast this with the Chinese rowing team. A recent New York Times story showed how the Chinese have zeroed in on rowing, which has a lot of medals, to ensure that their possible gold tally would increase. They paid handsomely to get the world’s best coaches and training facilities, and national team members are genuine heroes.

A third failure in India is the stranglehold cricket has on the imagination. There are billions of dollars spent on cricket, and all other sports starve. Case in point: India’s once-mighty field-hockey team, which once upon a time bestrode the Olympics like a colossus, failed to even qualify this year.

A large Olympic haul shows that a nation can imagine and execute. This has implications for strategy, and indeed, survival. After all, the original Greek Olympics were set up as a substitute for war.

Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this opinion from Chennai, India.

No, medals are no reflection of quality of life

Do numbers and ranks represent the last word on a given topic?

Take for example, the US News & World Report and Business Week’s ranking of universities: there was a time when these figures were the Gospel Truth. The futures of universities could be made or broken; universities quivered and quaked at the thought of a bad “ranking.” A few years ago, important questions were asked about the consequences of the ranking. Was a university ranked 15th necessarily inferior to a university ranked second, when their actual scores differed by a mere three points on a scale of 100? The strong possibility of drawing erroneous conclusions from “rankings” has resulted in a number of universities opting out of the ranking system, which is increasingly perceived as being more unhelpful than helpful.

Similarly, is there any correlation between a country’s medal tally and its quality of life? Is there any meaning at all in the number of medals? Should the ranking be based on total medals or medals per million people? If you choose the latter, the 2004 list is dominated by the Bahamas, Cuba, Estonia, Slovenia, Jamaica, etc.—a motley crew indeed—not the United States, Russia, or China.

Consider the countries of formerly Communist Eastern Europe, each a sporting powerhouse in the 1980s. Their Olympic performances were incredible; their ability to be swifter, higher, and stronger on a continuous basis was legendary. Indeed, only the United States could beat them in the medal sweepstakes.

But did the medals correlate with the overall quality of life in the Eastern Bloc? Life was dreary: the medals earned the athletes no more than a decent meal and a dacha, a luxury simply because the latter had heating and running water in countries where neither could be taken for granted. All the gold medals didn’t bring potable water, warm clothing, or any other amenity; indeed the Olympic Gold Medals helped divert attention from the poor quality of life for the citizenry. Within India, Kerala’s emergence as a leader in sports in the 1980s had no impact on the quality of life for the poor there. In any case, Kerala is remembered more for its high rate of literacy or the Gulf Boom than its sporting exploits.

India’s less than stellar Olympic performance (read: zero medals) is not excusable; however, it needs to follow the lead of countries such as Japan or France (strong performer, but not powerhouses), not China or the former East Germany. Besides being an achievable goal, it would also help do justice to the best spirit of sportsmanship and the Olympics themselves. Sport, after all, is just sport.

As for equaling China, India is better off emulating its success as an industrial power rather than as a sporting legend.

S. Gopikrishna writes on topics of importance to India and Indians.