Monday, August 18, 2008

Buying Gold

Why does India win so few Olympic medals? So asked Marginal Revolution and a billion Indians.

Firstly, congratulations to Abhinav Bindra for winning India's first ever individual gold. But looked at in the national medal tables , we are slightly behind Mongolia and Kazakhstan. In fact, on a per capita count, scaled to population, we would do even worse.

Not everyone dares to suggest genetic factors. I do. But these factors primarily apply to average performance in particular pure athletic disciplines. There surely must be some events where focus and investment and dedication can bring results, even with a largely fixed genetic pool. The enormous strides made by China, and even by the UK, since the last games prove this.

The usual glib answer is "get cricket into the games". That's only partially true, even if India's most popular sport were to be included, presumably in one-day format, there's still a good chance we'd be beaten by Australia (or Sri Lanka, like today).

There are better candidates, more guaranteed to get us a medal. Billiards. Chess. Kabaddi. And with enough "pressure" any sport can be included in the games. And by "pressure" perhaps we just mean money. According to a BBC investigation: if you are careful enough and clever enough and you really want the golden Olympic ticket for your sport, there is every reason to believe that you can get your event onto the podium.

Yet I still ask, given a developing nation's other priorities, is it worth it?


Faisal said...

No, it's not worth it. Not only because India has (and perhaps should have) other priorities, but also because it flies in the face of sportsmanship to "bend the rules" or change the sport to one that Indians would have an advantage in because it is played by few other nations. We should compete in the established sports, and train like the others do. Scholarships to encourage athletes and develop their talents, world-class coaches and infrastructure--that's all that's needed. Genetics apply, but surely we can find some coordinated, tall Indians and give them enough training to put up a good show in volleyball.

Medals only go to the top three finishers. It would be easy to get weighted results for how the athletes do in their competition, according to their rankings, and then do some per capita calculations like you suggest to see how countries fare when it comes to encouraging athleticism. Divide it by per capita GNP, etc., and it might provide the politicians a good baseline for budgeting for sports.

India needs to improve how it plays sports.

R N B said...

Excellent stuff on this at Freakonomics ... Usain Bolt and Don Bradman and other glorious freaks.