The Olympics are almost over. To no great surprise, India measured up relatively poorly in terms of medals won, not only against developed Western countries, but against other developing nations like China and Brazil. While India is still a developing country, it is hardly alone in this and it certainly has the resources to fund at least a program capable of delivering up a moderate number of victories. After all, India can find the money to send probes to Mars and the moon. And India’s large middle class, complete with their personal trainers and air-conditioned gyms, should at least be able to field more winners. India’s record is such that, as one commentator pointed out, “Michael Phelps has won as many medals on his own as Team India has managed since 1900.”
This is not to downplay the achievements of India’s athletes at the Olympics, who had to compete in the face of enormous indifference and callousness from Indian officials. Many Indian athletes performed well primarily because of their own efforts, and the efforts of their families. As of this writing, two Indians have won medals: PV Sindhu took home a silver for badminton and Sakshi Malik, a bronze for wrestling. Another athlete, Dipa Karmakar, became the first female Indian gymnast to compete in the Olympics, and placed in fourth in the vault. A golfer, Aditi Ashok qualified for the golf final, and a runner, Lalita Babar, became the second Indian woman to qualify for the final of track and field event.
What all these athletes have in common is their determination and ability to overcome the official neglect that extends to most sports in India. They are all also women, and thus face an additional layer of neglect in a society that values male athletes more. Karmakar revealed that “even now we still do not have the Olympic standard balance beam and uneven bars in India.” Malik is from the state of Haryana, where girls faced major barriers to even compete as wrestlers until recently. Herein lies a fitting lesson for a patriarchal society: women who take the initiative — rather than pampered male athletes — are the ones who are winning medals. Until Malik won a medal in the second week of the Olympics, it seemed possible that humiliatingly, India would win no medals at all. Several top athletes “crashed out,” early on, to use a euphemism common in Indian newspapers.
So what’s wrong with India’s effort at the Olympics? There are obviously some structural issues, including the fact that a large portion of the population is malnourished, and that whether malnourished or not, much of India’s population does not engage in sports, and definitely not from the early age necessary needed to be a world class sportsperson due to a lack of infrastructure and interest in most schools. These problems are not particular to India or related to its sports culture; it is to be assumed that as infrastructure and food security improve, Indians on average will become more athletic.
The bigger issue is channeling the talents of those Indians with access to food and facilities toward a goal of winning more medals at sporting events. India, unlike China, seems to lack the enormous drive to compete with the West and beat it on its own terms as a way of redressing centuries of colonial humiliation. Many Indian Olympics officials treat sports like a joke and a way to take an extended vacation to an exotic locale; money is often allocated to flying officials over business class to “cheer” the athletes. On the other hand, necessary expenditures are neglected. A case in point: As Quartz reported, Karmakar’s “physiotherapist wasn’t allowed to travel with her—it was dubbed ‘wasteful’ by the Sports Authority of India. The officials jumped into action only when she made history by qualifying for the finals; the physiotherapist was rushed to Brazil soon after.”
In order to improve, India should take advantage of its strengths. Obviously, women have been performing very well. Most women in India have to struggle against inherent social and institutional norms, even if their families are supportive. Women who reach the Olympics are thus likely to already have exceptional skills, relative to men in India. Therefore, India should field more make an effort to field more women and give them better access to trainers and facilities.
India also needs to end its culture of privilege and deference to masters at events. The athletes that got the most attention and funding at this Olympics were those that were well known from previous events, even though, as older athletes, they did not have the advantages of youth that lesser known ones (including this year’s medal winners) had. Yet many of these athletes have egos that have caused problems. For example, India’s best tennis players simply cannot get along, and when paired together in doubles matches, lost.
India most importantly should develop at least somewhat of a sports culture, through investing in more sports facilities at schools (which have to be built anyway) and stadiums in towns and cities. Sports other than cricket should also be emphasized, and tailored to the means and abilities of different wealth groups and states (for example, wrestling is an important local sport in Haryana, which is why it produces most of India’s Olympic athletes in that sport). Indians should focus on the sports in which they are more likely to succeed, for a variety of cultural, institutional, or dietary reasons that are by no means fixed or permanent, or characteristic of every Indian. In general, with the exception of hockey and wrestling, Indians have been winning more medals at sports that emphasize agility, flexibility, and concentration such as badminton, shooting, gymnastics, while performing less well in team sports and contact sports.
A country with over a billion people can surely, and should, win more than a handful of medals. The underlying problems are known, but concrete action must be taken to fix the issues. Even a prime minister like Narendra Modi, who likes to shed light on many of India’s issues, like sanitation, that were previously taboo, doesn’t seem to strongly prioritize sports.