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21 August, 2012

A long way to go yet

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

When a nation with big power ambitions is at the 55th place in the Olympics medal table, it means it has a long way to go. Yet India is in a celebratory mood because the six medals it won at London represent its best performance so far.

The medal tables of the Olympics reveal a link between political and economic power and sporting prowess. The United States (104 medals), China (88), Britain (65, of which 29 are gold, giving it a higher rank) and Russia (83, of which only 24 are gold) topped the list this year.

In average performance, worked out with respect to the strength of the national contingent, China with a percentage of 22.89 ranked above the US (19.62) and Russia (18.81) was above Britain (11.83). India, with 7.23, was way behind.

When European powers dominated the world, countries from that continent were at the top of the table. As the US emerged as a global power, it climbed to the top. Between 1952 and 1988 the Soviet Union stood first or second at every Olympics in which it participated.

Politics kept the People’s Republic of China away from seven Olympics. Returning with a bang in 1984, five years after Deng Xiaoping set the country on the path of economic reform, it claimed the fourth place. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, aided by home ground advantage, it took the top spot, with 51 gold against America’s 36, although the latter led 110-100 in the medal tally.

India was at the 50th place in Beijing with three medals — one gold and two bronze. Now ranked fourth in the world in gross domestic product as well as military firepower, it hoped to improve its standing in London. Goldman Sachs, the global banking and securities firm, predicted it could get three gold, one silver and one bronze.

The 24x7 channels, whose patriotism overrode realism, worked up popular expectations to a high pitch before every event in which Indians were participating. In the event, there was terrible disappointment in store for the viewers. The minimal increase in the number of medals could not make up for the lack of shine of the metal or the slip in rank.

Spokesmen of the official and sports establishment, however, were in an upbeat mood. They pointed out that this year’s performance was better than that at any previous meet. On 13 occasions India had to be content with just one medal, twice with two medals and once with three.

Why is it that a nation of 1.2 billion people cannot match the performance of, say, Iran, which has just about 75 million people? With 12 medals — four gold, five silver and three bronze — it ranked 17th at London.

Population and economic advancement do not automatically translate into medals. The fact is that only a small fraction of India’s population is involved in serious sporting activity. Olympian standards can be reached only through intense training, which is costly and beyond the means of the bulk of the population.

Substantial public or private investment in the creation of sports facilities and training of sportspersons lies behind the achievements of the countries high up in the medal tables. The quick rise of the Soviet Union and China in the latter half of the last century was the result of determined efforts by the Communist governments.

Sport is not a priority item on the Indian government’s agenda. It has no scheme to spot talent and provide training facilities to produce sportsmen of international standards. Private investment is small and goes mainly into games of the affluent like cricket. Sports officials have often invited charges of favouritism and mismanagement.

India has been unable to hold on to its gains. At eight Olympics, it won the hockey gold, and then it slipped and went out of the medal table altogether. At Beijing it did not even qualify in the event. This time it qualified but lost every match it played.

As the first Indian to win a gold medal for individual performance, Abhinav Bindra, air rifle shooter, was the toast of the nation after the Beijing Olympics. At London he lost in the qualifying round. However, his team-mate, Gagan Narang, won a bronze.

The silver medals were picked up by Vijay Kumar, a pistol shooter, and Sushil Kumar, a wrestler, and the other bronze medals by Yogeshwar Dutt, wrestler, MC Mary Kom, woman boxer, and Saina Nehwal, woman badminton player. --Gulf Today, August 21, 2012.

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