With the curtains having come down on the 2008 Summer Olympics, it is worthwhile pondering over the reasons for our traditionally dismal performance in the world's greatest sporting event. While it is true that our medal tally has gone up this time to three with the first ever Gold being won in an individual event (congratulations to Abhinav Bindra for that), the number is still far too small for comfort and discomfiting particularly when compared to other large countries across the world including, most notably, our northern neighbor China.
Anirudh Krishna and Eric Haglund published an article in EPW a few weeks ago analyzing this very question (a brief item on their findings is here). Previous investigators have shown that per capita GDP and population are key predictors of a nation's medal tally. They point out that according to a model taking into account both these factors, India was expected to win 19 medals at Athens (2004) but actually managed only one. Besides, GDP has grown consistently over the last six decades since independence but our olympic victories have not (see here for a summary of our successes since 1900) - on the contrary, we almost regularly won a single Gold in pre-independence days in events post-1928, a success we have been unable to repeat afterwards. Other factors such as climate and whether the nation happens to be hosting the Olympics also have a significant association with the medal tally but these too cannot account for the extreme paucity in our case. Likewise is the case regarding our political system: single party and communist ruled nations do have a consistently higher medal tally (Johnson, 2004) but most democratic nations fare better than we do making it an unlikely explanation for our failure (read this and this post on the Becker-Posner blog for a discussion on the reasons for this).
The authors argue that it is not the actual population of a country but the effectively participating population that matters, i.e., the proportion of the public that is healthy, has access to education and most importantly, is well connected with the outside world. Good health is essential to compete in sports; schools provide the avenue where talent finds recognition and information via the mass media raises the aspiration levels of society or so goes the reasoning. As a proxy to measure the last of them, they estimate the number of radios per 1000 residents. They show that their model which incorporates these factors does a better job of explaining inter-country variation than models using population and GDP alone. They also give the example of Jamaica, a low-income country with 430 radios/1000 residents which is well above the world median figure of 258, winning many more medals than a simple analysis using these two factors would have predicted.
The trouble is that their predictions are limited to a single cross-sectional event, namely, the total medal tally in the 1996 Summer Olympics. While they do acknowledge this fact, how likely is it that their assertions would survive in a longitudinal case study? Connectivity and access to information have undoubtedly improved in India over the last six decades and so have education and health care to some extent. At the very least, our medal tally ought to have seen a modest improvement over the years but none is evident (the current tally of 3 is no doubt an all time high but unless maintained in the future, it would have to be considered an outlier). As for the example cited, it may well be that Jamaica has a higher density of radios than India but even then, is the overall number of connected people (which is what really matters to determine the effectively participating population) lower than in the Caribbean country? The same question needs to be asked about education and healthcare as well: even assuming that only a fraction of our roughly 300 million strong middle class enjoys access to these amenities, is that number not sufficient to match that of any small sized country across the world? It is therefore difficult to believe that our own inability to match the 11 medals that Jamaica won - nearly four times our own tally - is due to our lack of connectivity.
Finally, all of this would only explain our failure if it is the outcome of poor talent at the recruiting stage. The study presents no evidence of that. If our sportsmen/women match those of other countries in their performance before undertaking professional training but subsequently fail to excel, the system that prepares them for such events is the likely culprit. One of the reasons for the phenomenal success of communist countries has been attributed to their rigorous training methods. A previous study also found that in both labor-intensive and physical capital intensive sports, higher income countries performed better than their poorer counterparts though the difference was much more pronounced for the latter kind indicating that financial investment matters for excellence in every sport albeit in different forms - perhaps more for equipment in some and better training in others. K.P.S.Gill, not surprisingly, blames the government for failing to help build turf stadiums and says that this contributed to the decline of Indian hockey in recent years.
The authors may well be right that people in India do not aspire to take up sports in a big way. That however is not something that can be quantified by such broad social indicators. This is part of a larger criticism I have with this study: they approach this issue much like any other developmental question and seek to argue that economic advancement of society will also inevitably lead to Olympic success and vice versa. As pointed out previously, the inverse temporal relationship between the two renders that claim questionable in India’s case. Furthermore, it is eminently possible to have development even absent a focus on sports in which case, higher income and connectivity would still translate only to mediocrity of the many, not the excellence of the few. The exalted performance vital to success in such competitive events involves identifying the talented outliers and subjecting them to intensive training, neither of which are considerations in formulating policies for social development. Future studies would do well to take these factors into account.