Why is Team India so Pathetic in the Olympics?

Team India & Modi, Wikipedia Commons

Yesterday was the last day of the 2016 Rio Olympics.  After the closing ceremony ended, India left Brazil with just two measly Olympic medals thanks to P.V. Sindhu’s inspiring run to silver in the sport of badminton, and backup freestyle wrestler Sakshi Malik unexpectedly bagging bronze in the 58kg weight class.

The glory of these two extraordinary ladies aside, this has been yet another pathetic Olympic games for the Indian contingent.  Here are a few numbers that tell the entire story.

India’s population:     1.252 billion, or 17% of all humanity

Rio Olympic medals:  2, or .095% of all medals awarded

Olympic gold medals since 1980: 1

The 2016 performance was more or less another disappointing par for India.  Why is Team India so pathetic in the Olympics?   Much has been said on the topic and there is some disagreement on this.  There are certainly multiple explanations for the lack of success, and nearly all of it can and should be corrected in the coming decades.

Genetics.   Genes are perhaps the only excuse that Indians cannot do much to improve upon, at least until genetic science has advanced.  Most people know that Indians tend to be short and skinny.  While athletes can take steps to improve nutrition, bulk up and add strength, there is not much they can do about their height beyond the margins.  The average Indian man is only 5’5″, and the average Indian woman is 5 foot flat.  Compare that to the Americans, with men averaging 5’10” and women averaging 5’4″.

The Indian women’s field hockey team was drubbed in Rio by the USA, 3-0 in a match that I watched on TV.  The Indian ladies were categorically smaller and weaker than their counterparts, which made a huge difference.  They almost seemed scared of the American gals.  And this is supposed to be one of India’s best sporting programs.



But this excuse only goes so far.  While height furnishes an advantage in sports such as track & field races, swimming races, or basketball for obvious reasons, for most Olympic sports being short isn’t necessarily a problem.  Besides, there are plenty of tall Indians out there simply due to the odds of being among 1.252 billion people, such as 7-foot NBA D-League hoopster, Satnam Singh Bhamara.

Pervasive and Crippling Corruption.  To be fair the winter and summer Olympic games are marred by corruption and cheating through and through, and it’s not just relegated to certain countries.  However, corruption is a veritable art form in India, and indeed, un-shockingly, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) has spent numerous recent months under suspension due to criminal activity.  In 2014 Indian athletes in the Sochi winter games weren’t even allowed to compete under the Indian flag for this reason, using the IOC flag as if they were goddamn refugees.

Most of the stories swirling around the 2016 Indian team are about the cronyism, nepotism, and luxe VIP treatment accorded to IOA executives and Indian politicians involved in sporting, and the very poor training, outfitting, accommodations, and travel arrangements for the athletes.  All of this is neatly framed by the story of Dutee Chand, a track star who was required to fly a series of connecting economy class flights for over 36 hours to get to Rio, without a coach and without even being provided quality running shoes just before she had to compete.  All the while the Indian honchos enjoyed flying business class and while the delegations ostensibly came to Rio to support the teams, some went sight-seeing and beach-bumming instead WHILE THEIR PLAYERS’ EVENTS WERE GOING ON.  Meanwhile, the trainer/coach for outstanding gymnast Dipa Karmakar was not even flown to Rio by the IOC from India until the final stages of her vault event.

The Indian government may be unable to fund its Olympic athletes anywhere approaching the levels of more wealthy countries.  But if they serially misallocate whatever resources do exist, then what’s the point of ramping up investment?  Control of sporting in India needs to be removed from the hands of the political elites who have placed a feudal stranglehold on sports for selfies, prestige, and kicks.  The hacks who know nothing about sports need to go, and replaced by athletes and coaches who know what they are doing and capable of strategic planning for the decades ahead, like nearly all other countries have.

Economic Factors.  Numerous studies have shown that strong GDP per capita is a good predictor of Olympic medal success.  It’s easy to see why this should matter to India, which is at about $1,500 per year.

One of the unfortunate realities of India is that the country is still extremely poor.  By most estimates, somewhere upwards of 20% of India’s population lives in dire poverty, and perhaps another 20% is fighting mightily to stay out of the first group.  Studying and labor are far more critical for young people than playing games.  This isn’t exactly the best cauldron for developing world-class athletes.

There are very few athletic facilities in India with even the basic specifications that most American high schools possess.  Rolling power cuts throughout the country reduce access further.  Assuming a top-flight athlete were to be discovered, the poor to nonexistent transportation infrastructure might prevent her from even getting to one of the properly outfitted gyms or fields, and reduce access to the coaches or competition needed to get better.  This is on top of the difficulty in discovering these types of athletes, categorically poor nutrition, and the lack of emphasis on athletics in schools.  All of this requires more money.

AUG 2 1959, 8-11-1959; Krishnan, Ramanathan;
Krishnan, via sportskeeda.com

Indians and the Killer Instinct.  Tennis legend Ramanathan Krishnan was for a time one of the top 5 tennis players in the world.  He is certainly one of the best athletes from India of all time.  But he never won a major, reaching the Wimbledon semis twice.  He diagnosed a key problem that he noticed with Indian athletes, and especially in himself: “Another reason, as I see it now, was in the mind: I felt satisfied too soon for my own good. In sport at the highest levels, contentment is suicidal. It’s a dangerous feeling. Perhaps this is what they mean when they say I lacked the killer instinct.”  Soon after that Vijay Amritraj, another great Indian tennis player said the same thing.  The lack of a “killer instinct” on the court, or a lack of mental toughness and confidence is not unique to Indians.  But because Indian athletes on the international stage have had little success outside of cricket, there is a tangible lack of respect by the competition, no winning tradition to follow, low expectations, and perhaps an inferiority complex which does not help.  There is a demonstrable lack of structural support as we’ve outlined here.  Oftentimes when I watch Indians in the Olympics, they just seem happy to be there.

This may not be the fulcrum for India’s troubles, but it compounds everything else.  Success breeds success, and failure breeds failure.   It must be frustrating and unhelpful mentally for Indian athletes to keep having to read articles like this one every day.

Cultural Factors.  Besides all of the above, another predictive factor for Olympic success has to do with gender equality according to recent research.  In those countries where women are educated and allowed to work, they are more likely to be encouraged in athletics at different stages of their development as well.  These are the countries that rack up women’s medals.  This shouldn’t be surprising at all.  On the gender equality front, India has a very, very long way to go.  The horrendous treatment of women throughout India has been well-documented and remains an international embarrassment.

Another related cultural factor is the position of sports on the spectrum of priorities.   Sports and developing athletic talent are simply not considered important or respectable in most Indian villages, towns, and cities.  Cricket is widely popular and has become a multibillion dollar, franchised industry in India.  The national team members are treated like gods.  Kids may grow up playing a lot of this sport.  Outside of cricket, however, there is a major drop-off in interest.

Parents, schools and colleges do not place the emphasis on athletics that most developed countries do, and almost always it would be relegated to cricket anyway.  Education is viewed as one-dimensional, with exam scores in hard subjects coming first, and all other extracurricular activities being viewed as distractions from real success.  The levels of academic stress experienced by Indian students can be all-encompassing, with all after-school hours being filled with extra tutoring to stay competitive academically.

All of this is highly unfortunate because I have seen how both sides work.  Throughout my years in American schools, I was generally among the best athletes in school at my age.  From elementary through high school, I was among the fastest sprinters and played on a number of organized sports teams.  Throughout the way I had access to nice courts and fields, coaching, gyms, equipment, and uniforms.  We had the time to practice for two hours a weekday, on top of one hour of mandatory gym class.

 I also went to elementary school in India for pieces of time between 4th grade and 6th grade, and participated with my cousins and classmates in several tournaments including track & field and volleyball in Udupi, Karnataka.  What I came across was a plethora of poor children from around the area, many of them who looked like they were used to hard labor on the farms, and would compete barefoot in the races and games with shabby clothing.  These kids were on average far faster and more athletic than Americans of the same age, if that’s possible to believe.  This makes the current situation all the more difficult to accept.

Somewhere in the world of Indian athletics, there is a major disconnect between the potential of its kids, and the formation of the Olympic roster.  Let’s see if Indians care enough to improve their Olympic output, which is more than just a symbol of pride.  It’s also a statement that India can finally implement a nation-wide organizational system towards success that the Indian people deserve.  Olympic success will also most likely correlate with the economic and cultural progress that need to happen, in concert.

Shooter Bindra, 2012 gold. via NDTV

There is hope.  Sindhu, Malik, shooter Abhinav Bindra, runner Milkha Singh, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, and tennis player Leander Paes have shown that Indian athletes are capable of matching up with anyone in the world with their grit.  India is, after all, where yoga and meditation were born.

Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor





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