Why India Performs So Poorly At The Olympics?

It is not lack of funding!

The Olympics ended last week. The usual suspects – US, UK, China, Russia – were at the top, as always. India sent its largest contingent ever to the Olympics this time; however, we barely managed to not return empty handed due to the heroics of our two superwomen – Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu. And do spare a thought for Dipa Karmakar. She won global hearts if not medals by successfully attempting the rare Produnova vault, which even Simone Biles – the eventual winner – refused to try.

While the country celebrates the triumph of these women extraordinaire, and politicians derive personal mileage by showering huge rewards and awards, the cacophony shouldn’t drown out the topical question – why India performs so poorly at the Olympics for its size? The question can be extended to sports in general, too. Barring a few like cricket.

First, let’s put things in perspective. Kenya – a country with one of the lowest per capita GDP in the world, a barely existing economy and an unstable government won 13 medals at Rio 2016, including 6 golds. Fiji – no bigger than a tiny dot somewhere in the Pacific too won a gold medal. Kosovo – which isn’t even a country in the true sense won more medals than India. There can be many more such examples. With little surprise, India ranks last in the list of medals per capita.

This paradox is confounding. On one hand, India is the third largest and fastest growing economy. Our engineers and doctors are world renowned. ISRO’s space program is rewriting the economics of space exploration. We’ve become the IT capital of the world. But all said and done, we are still miserable at global sports events. Except for some individual acts of brilliance here and there.

Surely it cannot simply be lack of funds. Otherwise how do you explain the success of Kenya? If reports are to be believed, the Kenyan athletes didn’t even have their opening ceremony outfits for Rio 2016. Is it the infrastructure? Then what about Kosovo? Or Fiji? Or Azerbaijan? Are Indian athletes lazy and not hard working enough? Read about the hardships of Mary Kom, Sushil Kumar, Karnam Maleswari – all former Olympic medalists – and you’ll get to know just how hard they’ve had to work. Much more than the well-oiled athletes from the US and China.

So, are we destined for mediocrity and should accept it and move on? But what about PV Sindhu then? Or Dipa Karmakar? Athletes like them prove that we are not mediocre– not all of us. The hardwork of PV Sindhu combined with the right guidance of coach Pulela Gopichand – himself a former world no.1 in badminton – shows what can be achieved when everything falls in place. If Dipa Karmakar can reach the Olympics by practicing on tyres, and compete against the Stanford educated and Nike sponsored Simone Biles of the US, it is upto one’s imagination what Dipa could achieve given the same environment. Please note – I say ‘environment’ and not infrastructure or funding. That’s where the Indian problem lies.

If greater funds and improved infrastructure were to be the panacea of Indian sports then we should’ve won atleast 20 Olympic medals, even with our current setup. Digest these facts to understand – China’s sports budget in year 2008 was $586 million and they won 51 gold medals at Beijing Olympics. India’s present budget allocation for sports is $250 million, then by simple ratio-proportion, shouldn’t India have won 20 medals? But we won 2! And zero gold.

The problem is, understandably, much deeper. The Indian sports story runs parallel to India’s socio-political narrative. Where the Indian athletes board economy class, the Indian ‘officials’ travel business class. Most of these ‘officials’ are none but party politicians, given plum posts for putting in the hard yards for their respective parties. If luck-by-chance, one of them turns out to be an actual sportsperson, then he is assigned to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry (RS Rathore, Athens 2004 – Silver). RIP Logic.

Our Honorable Sports and Youth Affairs Minister – a 62 year old not so youthful lawyer-cum-politician – camped in Rio for 10 days, apparently to cheer the Indian athletes. Leave aside cheering, he couldn’t even their names right. Also, it is another matter that this cheering set back the sports ministry by a few crore rupees. Maybe we could’ve given Dipa the best equipment with that amount. Don’t you think? The Haryana sports minister also joined in along with his entourage of 9 people – to cheer athletes from his state, Haryana. Even the secretary to his secretary went, allegedly. Although various newspaper reports claimed he didn’t make it to any event and instead cheered from the sunny beaches of Rio. Holy crap on a cracker!

Like most other sectors, our sports policies, too, work on the principle of knee-jerk reaction and piecemeal efforts. Visualize this: one fine day, someone higher up will realize the Rio Olympics are round the corner. As a standard-operating-procedure, almost on auto-pilot mode, an ‘expert’ committee will be put together comprising of retired bureaucrats and judges to chalk out a plan for Indian sports. A few inconsequential former athletes will be thrown in, to justify the expertness of the committee. The committee will come up a fancy named scheme promising to change the history of Indian sports – Khelo India. Job done. Medals guaranteed. Voila. Time for Mann Ki Baat.

With this backdrop, how on earth do you expect our athletes to do well in international arena? In all honesty, funds and expertise are available in ample quantities in India. Sadly, one is grossly misallocated or misappropriated, and the other is misrepresented. Till the time politicians and bureaucrats run our sports bodies, the picture will continue to be grim, no matter how much funds we allocate.

The head of Sports Authority of India should be a former sportsperson – preferably of international repute – and not a former Joint Secretary. The head of Indian athletics should be a former athlete, head of Indian Badminton, a former player – say someone like Prakash Padukone or Pulela Gopichand. A generalist bureaucrat, with due respect for his administrative skills, has no business running a sports body. A country of 1.2 billion has no business in settling for just 2 medals!

Maybe we need a ‘Lodha Committee’ for Indian sports in general. To set things, policies and people right in India sports. Then trust our athletes to work hard – you’ll see the medals flowing in less than a decade. The story of one Budhia Singh from Odisha is perfect for summing up the entire story of Indian sports:

In 2006, a 4 year old wonder boy Budhia ran 65 kilometers in about 7 hours from Bhubaneshwar to Puri. Media hailed him as God gifted, a future Olympian, a definite winner. Then the politicians took over. His coach was murdered, cases filed for child abuse. The courts banned Budhia from running, till a verdict is arrived at. It is 2016, the verdict is yet to reach and Budhia still can’t run. The media and politicians have long abandoned him.

Nishant holds an MS from the University of Michigan. When asked, he helps early-stage startups in reaching out to more people using the power of impactful storytelling and minimalism.