Sleeping Tiger, Flying Dragon

Published : Sep 18, 2004 00:00 IST

The mystery of the missing medals. By S. S. Vasan.

"HOW does India compare with Australia?" In India, the media and the public frequently debate this topic. Unfortunately, such discussions seldom go beyond cricket (a game in which up to 22 players do different things to a ball at different points of time... it usually continues for about a month until the Aussies are declared the winners).

Let me give you a comparison between India and Australia that has nothing to do with cricket, but is nevertheless exciting. In the 2002 Commonwealth Games held in Manchester (U.K.), Australia won 144 gold/silver medals. India bagged a third as many — 52 gold/silver medals — twenty of which were Commonwealth records (Table I). India was thus placed in the fourth position behind Australia, the U.K. and Canada.

Here is another comparison that is not exciting at all. Australia successfully converted its Commonwealth glory into Olympic medals (see Figure A). Its combined tally in Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 was an impressive 107 medals. India did not win a third as many as the Aussies this time — it only managed one bronze in Sydney and one silver in Athens. Although twenty Commonwealth records were set in 2002 (Table I), only Rathore got a silver medal in Athens.

Even if we ignore the doping shame of the weightlifting team, what happened to the rest? Why did they all fail?

It might be a bit unfair to compare India and Australia — the Australians are crazy about sports, enjoy better training and infrastructure, and also had the home crowd advantage in Sydney (where they bagged 9 more medals than in Athens). So let us look at a different country, say Jamaica. India fared five times better than Jamaica in the 2002 Commonwealth Games, but Jamaica fared five times better than India in Sydney and in Athens... how strange!

India also put up a commendable performance in the 2002 Asian Games held in Busan (Korea). It won 23 gold/silver medals compared to Iran's 22. India actually fared better with 11 gold medals compared to Iran's 8. What is Iran's combined tally in Sydney and Athens? 10 medals. And India's tally? 2 medals.

Maybe Iran has better facilities. After all, its GDP per capita is $7000 (ppp-adjusted) as opposed to $3000 for India. So let us choose a large Asian country, say Indonesia, whose GDP per capita is similar to India. Indonesia only won 4 gold and 7 silver medals in Busan, as opposed to India's 11 gold and 12 silver medals. However, Indonesia bagged a total of 10 medals in Sydney and Athens.

Where did India's Asiad gold and silver medallists go? As P.T. Usha wonders: "Does that mean our athletes were content after reaching the finals and lost the fire within them to do better?"

10 medals — a pipe dream or a reasonable expectation?

The number of gold/silver medals won by a country in the Asiad/Commonwealth Games is a good indicator of how well it would perform in the Olympics. The logic is that you at least need to have won a silver medal in the regional games to have a chance of winning an Olympic medal. This, by the way, is factually accurate — countries that did not even win a silver in the 2002 Games drew a blank in Sydney as well as in Athens.

Figure C shows the performance of all the countries which participated in the 2002 Asiad/Commonwealth Games. We see that most countries bagged an Olympic medal in Sydney or in Athens for every two gold/silver medals (2.2 to be precise) won in the 2002 Games. If we ignore the major exceptions, namely Australia and India, this correlation has a coefficient of 0.98 (a `perfect correlation' would have a value of 1) — which is actually good, given that the different games are not strictly comparable.

On the basis of this correlation, India (which won 52 gold/silver medals in the 2002 Commonwealth Games) would be expected to win 23-24 medals in Sydney and Athens (combined). In other words, 11-12 medals for India in Athens — not just the lone silver that it actually managed.

Interestingly, our analysis agrees well with the prediction of at least 10 medals for India in Athens by the consulting firm PriceWaterhouse Coopers (PWC). The PWC study analysed how medal performance in Sydney was related to economic and political factors, and included data from the four Olympic Games since 1988 in order to produce some benchmarks against which performance in Athens could be judged.

How do successful countries do it?

Once in four years, for about a month, India very painfully confronts its lacklustre performance in the Olympics... accusations, counter-accusations, excuses, eyewashes, a few scapegoats... and then to everybody's great relief a new cricket match starts in some corner of the world to take all the sponsorships and media attention away (alas, this year even the NatWest series hasn't provided much of a solace).

Much has been said and written in the Indian media on this hackneyed topic; for decades, pundits have conducted extensive Olympic post-mortems (sometimes even before the Games begin!) and seem to know exactly what is wrong. Most of their arguments (summarised in Table II) are very valid and understandably emotional, but are beyond the scope of this article. Instead, let us focus on Figure C and see what useful and practical ideas we can take away.

Firstly, one can't but help notice that all the cricket-crazy countries of the Indian sub-continent lie on the y-axis. India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh account for one quarter of the world's population, and between them won 2 bronze and 1 silver medals in Sydney and Athens (combined). Figure D illustrates the underlying reasons for this trend. As India's Athens silver medallist Rathore has warned: "I love (cricket) too, but unless the focus is there on Olympic sports, no youngster will ever start playing (them)".

If India is to improve its performance in the Olympics, it should have a short-term strategy to build on its strengths and a long-term strategy to rectify its weaknesses. In the long-term, India should emulate the success of countries like Australia, China, Japan, S. Korea and the U.K. (countries within the big circle in Figure C). If India starts acting now, we can expect good results in 2016 (an ambitious target) or 2020 (a realistic timeline).

In the short-term, however, India should carefully learn from comparable/developing countries that are able to translate their achievements in the regional games into Olympic medals — countries enclosed within the small circle (Figure C) — like Indonesia, Iran, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Kenya, S. Africa, Thailand and Uzbekistan. From Table III, we see that these countries win almost all their Olympic medals by focusing on two or three sports, and striving for regional and world class achievements in them.

How can India build on its strengths?

This leads to the obvious question: what are India's strengths? To understand that, we need to look no further than its laurels in the 2002 Asiad and Commonwealth Games (Table IV). Shooting and weightlifting ought to be the main focus and they have attracted considerable interest in the country (thanks to Olympic medals won by Rathore and Malleswari).

From Table III, we see that Indonesia, Iran and Thailand are India's key regional competitors in weightlifting at Olympic level. India would benefit if it sends its best weightlifters to train in these countries, and organise exchanges and competitions. Similarly, China and Russia are the best in the world in shooting — in Athens alone, these two countries won 9 medals (including 4 gold and 2 silver) and 10 medals (including 3 gold and 4 silver) respectively. What stops India from leveraging its traditional friendship with Russia and its improving relationship with China?

The best Indian boxers could train in Kazakhstan, Thailand or Uzbekistan; the top Indian athletes have a lot to learn from Jamaica and Kenya, and so on. Sending the best athletes to train abroad should go hand in hand with developing in-house infrastructure and training facilities.

India certainly needs to set up a centralised residential facility (nothing less than the best in the world) — one for each sport in which it has an excellent/good potential. Such initiatives are better sponsored and managed by India's booming corporate sector. For a moment let us dream about an "Infosys Olympic Shooting Centre" in Bangalore or an "Ambani Olympic Weightlifting Facility" in Mumbai. Can you imagine corruption, doping scandals, nepotism and politics ruling such facilities? Do you think such companies would be willing to subsidise mediocrity?

If properly implemented, the short-term strategies coupled with the home crowd advantage should help India to come third (in terms of gold as well as total medals) in the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. There are three major events — the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing — so India has adequate opportunities to experiment different strategies before the 2010 Games in Delhi.

The Delhi Games can act as a launch pad for a well planned campaign to win at least 5 if not 10 medals in the 2012 Olympics. Missing this golden opportunity would be a real shame indeed.

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