6 Reasons Why India Will Never Become an Olympic Superpower

The Quint takes a look at the six reasons why India hugs the bottom of the leaderboard as a sporting nation.

6 min read
Abhinav Bindra carries the flag of India during the opening ceremony for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo: AP)

As a nation, we have a fascinating capacity to gloss over our defeats with pumped up stories of chivalry, glory and triumph. In this category belongs the nation-wide euphoria for the two medals we won at the Rio Olympics.

As if by routine, and sticking to that terribly bureaucratic cliché, the government has announced the formation of task forces for sport, so that we bring back weightier medals from Tokyo, no matter that Rio was a washout. But realistically, India has no chance of becoming even a middle-rung Olympic superpower in the near future.

Here are the six reasons why India hugs the bottom as a sporting nation.

1. First-World Dominance

A developed country like USA bagged the most number of medals at the Olympics yet again. (Photo: AP)
A developed country like USA bagged the most number of medals at the Olympics yet again. (Photo: AP)

The Indian debacle or for that matter, Asian debacle, is an old Olympic story. Not counting China (3rd),  Japan (6th) and South Korea (8th) – all advanced countries – the first Asian or South East  Asian country to figure in the medal tally is Indonesia at 46 with one gold, band Vietnam with one gold at 48. India was 67th.

A huge majority of the medals are taken by the top five developed nations, leaving only crumbs for the rest. Brazil, the great sporting nation – also a rising economy like India – finished only 13th with just 7 golds. Argentina, the other great Latin American sporting nation we all admire for the great soccer immortals it has produced, finished 27th with just 3 golds. This is because economically advanced nations (the First World) have dominated the Olympics from 1960 onwards.

2. No Suitable ‘Genetic Pool’

Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge celebrates after winning the men’s marathon event at Rio. (Photo: Reuters)
Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge celebrates after winning the men’s marathon event at Rio. (Photo: Reuters)

India, like many other Asian nations, does not have a genetic pool which contributes a lot to sporting achievement. There are various debates on this but at least in the case of Kenya and Jamaica, it has proved true. For example – the Rift Valley athletes from Kenya dominate the long and middle-distance races, while Jamaican athletes dominate the sprints.

Almost all the Kenyan top runners belong to one tribe – the Kalenjin. It is easy for coaches to work with such athletes with top V2 Max (lung power) rating. In the case of the Rift Valley, the altitude of the region also seems to be a favourable factor.

“Genes and environment do matter, so choose your parents well,” says Greek sports scientist Yannis Pitsiladis of Brighton University, who is now involved in the project to break the two-hour barrier in marathons.

An effort was made by SAI in the 80s to tap into genetic pools among tribals and genetically matched communities. The project came up well, but like everything else in India, it fizzled out.

3. Silver Should Be Considered a Gold Lost

A core quality among top-ranking sportspersons is the unstoppable urge to win at any cost. For them, a silver medal means a gold medal lost. No Indian athlete is mentally attuned to win or dominate, which could be attributed to national character and entrenched mediocrity. Which is why just two medals have caused so much national euphoria.

This is also the reason why three Indian athletes finished fourth. In typical fashion, India’s shooting star Abhinav Bindra, who missed a medal, said he was happy with his performance!

British diver Chris Mears, who won the gold for synchronised diving, was given only a five percent chance to live 7 years ago when he ruptured his spleen while diving. He was only 15 then. He was back in the pool 18 months later. At Rio, with the gold medal dangling from his chest, he said:

I’ve come from death’s door. So I’m pretty proud.
Chris Mears

No Indian is mentally conditioned  for such relentlessness to reach the top. Even a knee injury is enough to send him or her into retirement.

4. Hard Work a Prerequisite: There’s No ‘Natural Talent’

 Ranjith Maheswary. (Photo: AP) 
Ranjith Maheswary. (Photo: AP) 

Top athletes are the product of relentless practice, at least according to this theory, which goes against the genetic pool theory.  According to Anders Erisson, whose 1993 study first propounded the theory of 10,000 hours of minimum practice to achieve excellence in any sphere, there is nothing called ‘natural talent’. It all comes by hard work. But even going by this, India doesn’t stand much of a chance.

In any Olympic event, Indian athletes are up against those who have spent their childhood and youth with just one goal, and follow it up with relentless, focused practice. In India, athletes emerge by accident rather than by design. Or if they happen to find themselves in the Army, where they are forced into some sport. Our marathon runners Gopi and  Kheta Ram are classic examples of Army-created athletes.

India’s triple jumper Ranjith Maheswary did not qualify for the finals in both London and in Rio (after apparently clocking the longest jump of 2016  in Bangalore). Clearly a case of an athlete doing minimal practice, or just not being focussed enough, and bereft of any urge to win.

On the other hand, the great swimmer Michael Phelps practised every day in the last one year, even though the US squad was given Sundays off. At the end, he said “I got 50 days of extra practice.”  Billie Jean King once said “Champions keep playing until they get it right.” She obviously didn’t have those like Ranjit Mahesway in mind when she said this!

5. Lack of Good Coaches in India?

India’s Tintu Lukka, right, Ukraine’s Natalia Lupu, middle, and Britain’s Lynsey Sharp compete in a women’s 800m round one heat at the World Athletics Championships. (Photo: AP)
India’s Tintu Lukka, right, Ukraine’s Natalia Lupu, middle, and Britain’s Lynsey Sharp compete in a women’s 800m round one heat at the World Athletics Championships. (Photo: AP)

‘First find a good teacher’ is the sub-head of a chapter in Ericsson’s latest book, Peak, about achieving excellence.

Pullela Gopichand may have produced an Olympic silver (PV Sindhu) and bronze medallist (Saina Nehwal), but what about other sports?

Coaches are supposed to be life-time appointments, but our coaches are frequently shuffled around. Two of our leading athletes, Anju Bobby George and 800-metre runner Tintu Luka, were destroyed by their coaches. Anju by her husband who became her coach, and Tintu Luka by Usha, who is clearly devoid of any reading in strategy and high performance.

Good athletes seldom make good coaches. Our fourth-position finish could have been avoided if there were top coaches with these athletes. High thinking and high strategy are most important here.

6. India Lacks Nationalistic Fervour

(Photo: iStock)
(Photo: iStock)

Lastly, there is also lack of nationalist fervour, since we are a disparate population. Notions of nationalism and of the country itself differ from state to state. Fareed Zakaria, writing on India’s performance at Rio, says India has become a country of private excellence but public incompetence, and also lacks in nationalistic fervour.

India does not have the unified nationalist fervour that China brings to these global competitions. Perhaps because of India’s diversity, perhaps for idle reasons, but it is difficult to imagine the country uniting as China did for the Beijing Olympics.
Fareed Zakaria

So, caught in this quagmire, Indian sport needs a huge disruption supervised by a Commissioner of Sport, who has full powers across sporting events, coaching and management. That is not going to happen considering the vested interests who feed off of Indian sport.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. He can be reached at @binoojohn.)

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