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Crowning glory

How, oh how, can India win an Olympic medal? Hosting the Games and boosting our per capita income will help considerably, say some sporty economists, writes N Chandra Mohan.

india Updated: Aug 10, 2008 20:54 IST
N Chandra Mohan

The Beijing Olympiad has kicked off. The hopes of a billion-plus nation rest on its 57-member delegation, although expectations are low regarding India’s medal prospects. Suresh Kalmadi, Indian Olympic Association President, warned the country not to expect too many medals in Beijing. India’s legendary runner, Milkha Singh, who missed a bronze in the 1960 Rome Olympics, considers the present contingent not even good enough to stand a chance at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Dire stuff.

Expectations are obviously low given India’s dismal track record of winning only 17 medals in the Olympics since 1900, 11 of which were in hockey alone. With the country’s hockey contingent not even qualifying for the Games this year, the big question is which sporting disciplines will end India’s medals drought. Will it be in double-trap shooting as in Athens 2004? Boxing? Archery? Or will Hesh-Lee put aside their differences and ascend the winner’s podium in the tennis doubles?

Why can’t a billion-plus India boost its tally at the Olympics? Contrary to the stereotypes of being masters of the ‘on the one hand... on the other hand’ brand of logic, practitioners of the dismal science seem to have all the answers in this regard using a combination of economics, history and number crunching. US-based Professors Andrew Bernard and Meghan Busse have argued that national Olympic totals are influenced by four factors: population, per-capita income, past performance and the host effect.

According to this line of somewhat deterministic thinking, China, the US and Germany are expected to win the highest number of medals as they have large populations where there are more chances of finding Olympic champions. Developed countries like the US and Germany also have high per capita incomes that gives them the resources to develop medal contenders. Per capita income, in fact, emerges in their exercise as the single best predictor of a country’s performance at the Olympic Games. So, the moral of the story as far as India is concerned is to boost its gross domestic product (GDP) so that it can divert more of its resources to produce more Olympic champions. But countries with less population and average incomes like Cuba, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uzbekistan have won more medals. As two other economists, Anirudh Krishna and Eric Haglund, put it, “Why do 10 million Indians win less than one-hundredth of one Olympic medal while 10 million Uzbeks won 4.7 Olympic medals?”

Boosting GDP, for its part, is hardly a sufficient condition for India becoming more successful at the Olympics. It is, at best, a necessary proposition rather than a magic formula of sorts. The US still is the richest and most-powerful economy in the world but why is its prowess — in winning gold medals — declining for three-straight Olympics in a row? The flipside is what accounts for the success of much poorer African countries like Kenya and Ethiopia in their domination of middle-and long-distance running events?

Per capita income, too, is only one, rather than the sole predictor of achievement that it’s trotted out to be. Kerala has been more successful in producing the best women athletes at a lower per capita income than, say, the richest one of Punjab.

Economists would be unfazed and argue that a richer or a faster growing country has more resources at its disposal to produce Olympic champions. The error perhaps is to assume that a trickle-down process automatically takes place to ensure these outcomes.

Interestingly, hosting the Olympics is considered a major boost to a country’s prospects — even adding as much as 1.8 per cent of the medals beyond what is predicted by GDP. So, here we have another compelling factor that can potentially boost our medals tally through home crowd enthusiasm. Anyone who has seen Leander Paes outperform himself when the domestic audience waves the tricolour and yells “Go, Leander go!” will know what this implies. India must, therefore, seriously bid for the Games in 2020.

On the face of it, this doesn’t sound like an outrageous proposition. A 12-year timeframe is adequate for gearing up to build the infrastructure for the ultimate sporting event in the world. Hosting the 2010 Commonwealth Games could lay the foundations for the Olympiad. Twenty-six years earlier, when the nation’s capital was the venue for the Asian Games, many flyovers, hotels and stadia were built that still serve the city.

Just imagine what hosting an Olympics in 2020 will do in this regard. Another important reason to host this event is also the excitement that has returned to Indian sport. We have become a world-beating force in cricket and must ensure that that the Twenty20 version of the game is included in the Olympics. (Cricket, incidentally, was an Olympic sport way back in 1900.)

Overall, it is a fact that any country hosting such an event is never the same as it ascends to a higher level of economic development — Tokyo after 1964, Seoul after 1988, Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004 and so on. But here again, management gurus like Kenichi Ohmae will argue that India is still not at a level of per capita income of $3,000 when countries desire a more active global engagement by hosting such an event.

But all of this will soon change given India’s rapid growth trajectory. But that is another story for Deep Fish.