As usual, Indian athletes head off to the 29th version of the modern Olympics in Beijing loaded with many hopes and a matching dose of cynicism. Every four years, we wonder why a country of over a billion people cannot produce world-class athletes capable of winning gold medals (no answers, we are like that only). And every time, the predictions that we’ll crack it this time prove disastrously wrong.
The trouble is that these expectations have expanded in direct proportion to India’s economic growth and rise up the value chain of world perception as a successful emerging economy. Thus, in 2004, PricewaterhouseCoopers predicted that we’d win four medals and we returned with one Silver in double trap shooting. This time, PwC predicts a haul of six gongs. Ha ha?
The trouble with such predictions is that they are linked to criteria that have little to do with sporting performance in the free market that is the global sporting industry. For instance, PwC says the number of medals won by countries increases with its population and wealth. This is only partly true. Sure, the US, the world’s largest and richest economy, Japan, France, Germany and South Korea routinely figure among the leaders in the Olympics medal tally. But China and Russia were consistently at the top order of the Olympics medals tally even in the bad old days as Communist nations (caveat: China still is, but nominally so) and certainly did not count among the world’s richest countries. Their successes have more to do with an obsessive, state-sponsored focus on athletic prowess that would have been admirable had the exercise not bordered on human rights abuse. But how do we explain the successes of Cuba (27 medals including nine Golds in 2004), Georgia (four, two Golds), Kenya (seven, one Gold) and Egypt (five, one Gold)? These countries — chosen here at random — have economies that are immeasurably smaller than India’s, both in absolute size and in per capita wealth.
The short point is that although a country’s wealth counts inasmuch as its ability to supply sporting infrastructure and institutions may influence its athletes’ successes in national championships, athletic talent in itself is not related to economic prowess. If this were true, then the US should have produced the world’s best soccer players, but it is Brazil and Argentina and, increasingly, Africa and the former Soviet Republics that have that honour. Likewise, the African continent’s ability to produce champion long-distance runner after runner can hardly be linked to economic performance.
Many commentators have suggested that we emulate the Chinese and Russian models of state sponsorship to increase our chances of success. I would suggest that this four-year national ego trip on a global scale is a great spectacle for sports fans but a waste of time and money for India. China reportedly spent $1 billion over the last seven years to train its athletes — money that, in India at least, could be profitably spent on badly needed schools and hospitals, urbanisation and a range of social infrastructure. The investment India does make on its Olympics effort yields a poor return anyway. This is not surprising since the money appears to lubricate the comforts of officials rather than the abilities of our athletes. Do we really need 42 officials to manage 57 athletes at the Games?
In any case, aside from Russia and China, which are aberrant models, the rich countries that top the medals tallies are ones in which the sports industry — whether in athletics, team games (soccer, basketball) or individual sports (tennis, golf) — is driven by private sector investment. National championships are but an addendum to a crowded calendar of tournaments bankrolled by private and corporate investment in which individuals and clubs compete on the basis of talent rather than national provenance. That is why, for instance, a player from the Ivory Coast, Didier Drogba, and one from Cameroon, Samuel Eto’o, can be among the world’s most feted footballers today, though there is no soccer infrastructure to speak of in their countries.
As importantly, Olympic medals tallies don’t really influence global perceptions. China is not the top destination for foreign investment because it features among the top five Olympic medals winners. Similarly, no global investor judges India on its (slim) sporting abilities — it’s the potential market, economic growth, corporate success and poverty reduction that have counted for much more in these 17 years of stop-start economic reform.
All in all, and as Gandhian as it may sound, India should stay away from the Olympics unless India Inc is prepared to bankroll our athletes and sportsmen in a more meaningful way. The cash-strapped Indian government would be better off not spending on that transitory (and in our case, elusive) feel-good factor when there are many other urgent priorities to address.