There is no need for breast-beating about India’s modest Olympic performance. The fact is that the country’s performance is improving, steadily even if slowly. At the present rate of progress, India should figure among the top 20 medal-winning countries two Olympics from now. Don’t mock that admittedly modest objective. The fact is that if you are a poor or hot country, you don’t do well in Olympic contests. And if you are both poor and hot, the dice are really loaded against you.
Look first at the economics. Of 183 countries ranked by the International Monetary Fund according to per capita income, India comes 140th. As against that, among the 207 National Olympic Committees that took part in the London Olympics, India stood 56th, from among 78 medal-winning NOCs (this before the final round of contests on Sunday). And here’s the thing: of the 43 countries listed as poorer than India, only five featured in the medals lists: Kenya had nine and Ethiopia seven, thanks to their distance runners. And North Korea had six, mostly in weightlifting. The other two had a solitary bronze medal each: Afghanistan in taekwondo and Tajikistan in boxing.
What about geography? Those five poor, medal-winning countries don’t have a predominantly hot climate (both Kenya and Ethiopia have substantial temperate zones). If you survey the tropical belt, no South Asian country other than India had any medal winners. The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean (the majority wealthier than India), won a total of nine medals between them, none of them gold. And the Arab countries of West Asia and North Africa (including the oil-rich sheikhdoms) claimed a total of 11 medals. So if you take the hot weather belt that runs all the way from western Sahara to humid Southeast Asia, the total medal count was 25. Take both categories – either poor or hot – and you got a total of 49 medals, out of more than 900 that were up for grabs. If you take countries that are both poor and hot, the only medal-winning country was India! Note also that in all of sub-Saharan Africa, the only other countries to win medals were South Africa, which has strong European stock, high income levels and a helpful climate (yielding six medals) and Botswana and Gabon (a silver each).
The way to win medals, therefore, is to either change your climate or get rich. Since even Jairam Ramesh can’t be expected to manage the first, the focus has to be on the second. By the Olympics of 2020, if the country has a per capita income that is roughly what Sri Lanka’s is today (twice India’s current level), the national anthem will stop sounding like a strange tune in an Olympic setting. It helps that India seems to have found genetic-cultural pools of wrestlers in Haryana, boxers in Manipur, shuttlers in Hyderabad, archers in Bengal and sharp-shooters from the old undivided Punjab. We are also getting better at running-throwing-jumping, with finalists in two or three events and top-12 finishers in one or two others. A beginning will then have to be made in swimming and diving, where there are many medals going (ask Michael Phelps). What the country needs are the institutional structures, systems and budgets that create winners out of the also-rans; some are there, many more are needed. They will come when there is more money in and for sport.