Games mirror nation’s growth
Binoo K John on how growth rates and Olympic medal tallies are closely related
THE OLYMPIC season is upon us and India is sending the largest ever contingent to the London Games. Over the years, India has persistently hogged the bottom of the Olympic medals tally and has made no national effort to rise from the brink of sporting extinction. The large size of the contingent is no assurance that it will bring back more medals but it is clearly indicative of rising sports culture in India. This always happens in nations which are on the rise, economically. Sporting facilities improve, this reflects on the aspirations and of course a new generation would have trained on better facilities: Management of any sport rises along with the economy.
This relation between the economy and sporting achievement has not been clearly understood. Certain nations are genetically suited for certain types of sport: Jamaica for sprints and Kenya and Ethiopia for middle and long distances, for example. A study of the medals tally over the years shows that economic rise (or decline) reflects in the medal tally of Olympics. Nations which have broken up also show a decline, fast-rising nations like China show an incredible rise in medals they win, and so on.
For the purpose of this article, I selected the 1960 Rome Olympics (the Milkha Singh Olympics for us) as the base year from which to track the rise of the biggies and some small nations to see a relation between economy and sporting achievement. Small nations which are economically sound like Singapore do not come into the picture because of lack of a definite sporting purpose, nor do others like Malaysia.
The US and the Soviet Union were the superpowers in sports during the years of the Cold War. Soviet Russia topped the Rome Olympics with 43 golds while the US was second with 34. Italy and Germany followed and so the medals tally was in keeping with the world economic ranking.
By 1996 in Atlanta, Russia had slipped to 26 golds while US topped (like it did in 1984) with 44 golds. The other big economic powers remained stable, with no unpredictable growth either in economy or in Olympic medals. Italy got 13 in 1996 and 15 in 1984. Germany has had a stable run in the Olympics, growing slowly and not showing any signs of being a breakaway power in sport. Though it gained by the merger with East Germany, it was unable to replicate erstwhile East Germany’s superiority in athletics, gymnastics etc.
Japan in the 1990s had entered a recessionary cycle from which it has not yet emerged. While the economy stagnated, the medals tally too went down. From 10 golds in 1984, Japan slumped to three in 1996. In 2000, it got five and in 2008, when China had truly emerged as the big economic superpower and topped the medals tally with 51 golds in the showpiece Beijing Olympics, Japan was 15th with five golds.
China was not even present in the tally of 1960 Rome, but 24 years later, by the time of Los Angeles, had begun showing its sporting ambitions with 17 golds. Remember, China has always associated sporting achievement with nation building. The medals tally of China shows a perfect upward movement, growing through 28 golds in Sydney and then topping at 51 golds at Beijing.
In many ways, the rise of China was foretold in the gold medals it started winning in the 80s and then shot upwards towards the early part of this century.
The medium to big economies like Australia and South Korea have been inching their way up, pushing aside Japan which, confounded by its economic stagnation lost its way in the sports field too, winning only three golds in Atlanta.
Australia, which has not witnessed much economic turmoil, almost insulated by the Pacific Ocean to the economic turbulence elsewhere, has maintained a steady double digit over the years, averaging 12-18 golds, due mostly to its swimming prowess and its superiority in some Games.
SO WILL India and Brazil, the two lackadaisical sporting nations in the emerging economy bloc called bric (Brazil, Russia, India, China), make an impact in London? India’s first track medal could have come this year if the 1,600 women’s relay team had not got disbanded due to doping charges. India looks good for medals in shooting, wrestling, boxing, tennis, and women’s boxing (introduced in Olympics this year), which for India will be a gargantuan rise.
Brazil has kept Indian company over the years near the bottom of the medals tally and now surprisingly the two find themselves together in an economic grouping which the world is watching. But Brazil’s national passion — football — seems to have over-ridden any interest in other sports.
This is bound to change, for after hosting the 2014 Soccer World Cup, Rio de Janeiro will host the 2016 Olympics, clearly indicating its economic rise. These two events are proof of the arrival of a country in the big league of nations that drive the world economy and so Brazil will clearly leave Indian behind in this aspect. Brazil’s GDP grew only 3 percent in 2011, and inflation is over 5 percent but there is really no panic there (unlike what it would have been in India) over these two big events which can remake or break the economy. Foreign companies from the developed nations and China are investing heavily in Brazil and thus can neutralise any other economic negatives.
India also could have hoped to host the Olympics in the 2020s but its inefficient sporting management run by the comatose Sports Authority of India hardly inspires confidence. What is good news is that India has now teams in all sports, ranging from track and field to women’s boxing and tennis, all of which have had tough qualifying standards. If we get five or more Olympic medals this year, it may signify the arrival of an Asian sporting powerhouse. No comparison to China, but some indications of potential in the region.
Binoo K John is an author and columnist based
in New Delhi.