As I write this piece, the situation is slightly better. Only slightly. A tally of 2 medals – one Silver and one Bronze at the Rio Olympics for India. Just a couple of days ago, as a country it was all despair. We were staring at a situation of returning empty handed and that was something for a proud and populous country like ours – ‘bilkul Shoba nahin deta’. The usual diatribes ensued. – “A country of 1.3 billion and just 1.3 medals!” “As long as we laud Cricket and applaud only Cricketers, there’s no hope for Olympic sports!” “So long as we keep praying for Engineers and Doctors in maternity wards, athletes will be hard to come by!” “As long as sports administration is in the hands of politicians, there is no chance for medals.” So on and so forth. And these are nothing new. Every time our contingent returns with a modest performance it’s usually a repeat of the above template outrage.
Our rather modest performance in sports events historically could indeed be due to one or combination or all of the above causes. But I do believe there’s one more important bullet. And that is the size and state of the economy. As we speak, USA is at the head of the medals table at Rio Olympics followed by Great Britain and then China. In terms of GDP, USA is at No. 1, EU of which Great Britain is a part as of now is at No. 2 followed by China. Russia which is at No. 4 has been a past economic super power. The medals table at London Olympics looked almost similar.
China which has been at the 11th rank in terms of medal tally at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, has been at No.3 or better since 2000. Around the same time when China was deemed to have shrugged off the developing country tag and took guard as an economic powerhouse.
By this logic, we have hope. One would have thought that our good performance at the London Olympics in 2012 would be the tipping point as a country in so far as Olympic performance is concerned. However it seems that’s not to be. Drawing a parallel, doesn’t our economic performance mirror this? A country which was on fire around 2011/Mid 2012 and gradually sort of lost its way and now seems to be on the recovery path once again.
While I am trying to draw a parallel here between the state of the economy and our sports performance, it could be just a coincidence. But where I am coming from is, for a country to excel in sports and be at the top 10 of the medals table, it should be doing well economically.
Excelling in sports is today an expensive affair. It is not enough to have strong willed, talented and focused individuals. It calls for financial resources to be poured on infrastructure, training, coaches, equipment and the like. And in a country like in India not just in cities but in fledgling towns as well which are now throwing up talent like never before. We keep hearing tales of talented girls stopping coaching sessions because of ill equipped toilets. Or those who give up when they cannot afford to spend money on professional coaches or facilities. And those who still cross all these hurdles and arrive at the National scene – need to be exposed at International levels for which you need to invest on foreign coaches or send them abroad for training for longer stints all which costs a lot of money that too when you need to do this not for 1 or 2 but 100’s of individuals.
An Abhinav Bindra did not have the need to fall upon the state or other sponsors to chase his Olympic dream. He was more than financially sound to acquire for himself the ecosystem required to win an Olympic Gold. But then all are not Abhinav Bindras. Ergo, you need the support of the state or private sponsors to adopt potential medal winners and provide all the support required without counting the last paisa. Even for a noble movement like Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) spearheaded by champs like Geet Sethi, V. Anand, Leander Paes, Padukone Senior,.. with a clearly stated mission “To Support Indian athletes in winning Olympic Gold Medals” the biggest challenge is to raise funds to achieve their mission. A fledgling economy doesn’t count the last rupee to sponsor a Sakshi’s stint abroad or a Narsingh’s 24*7 nutritionist. A struggling economy on the other hand will be hard pressed to focus on other priorities.
In much of our or water cooler or these days WhatsApp discourses, parents who think that their wards are better of chasing an Engineering / Medical dream than that of sports are at the receiving end. I do believe that in general, parents think of only the well-being of their kids. So if they do feel that a career in athletics is not remunerative enough to have a decent life, they can’t be blamed. However this can change and it is changing. Olympic sports unlike in the past have started getting the attention from corporates who are willing to support athletes for a longer period of time. And just as we saw a few days back the bronze medal winner from Haryana – Sakshi Malik is already a dollar millionaire based on the many announcements we heard. This kind of commitments are possible for both the Government and private players if their coffers are growing with tax collections and profits respectively.
So as a country as we transition ourselves from a “developing” country to a “developed” country in the next couple of decades our economy will be in a better position to afford to support the needs of churning out Olympic champions. So we are back to Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign theme – “it’s the Economy, stupid” here as well. Our country has to continue to grow as an economy, lift millions of people out of poverty, collect a lot of taxes which will help pour money on giving birth to Olympic champions. So, for more Olympic medals, we need more Raghuram Rajans to help steer the economy on a continued growth path 🙂 🙂