I always get excited when the Olympics roll around. They’re a time for the nations of the world to put aside their differences in the name of sportsmanship and athleticism. They’re a symbol of peace and goodwill in a turbulent era. And as I realized recently, they’re a great excuse to watch the U.S. win at stuff.
When I found out that I would be in India for the Olympics, I was eager to watch the games from a foreign perspective. Which events would be the most popular? Which athletes would people root for? Which stories would capture the country’s collective imagination? More than anything else, I was excited to see people’s excitement. But to my surprise, no one made much of a fuss in the days leading up to the competition, and once it started, most people were indifferent. I was shocked. Why didn’t they care?
The first time I heard an Indian display total apathy towards the Olympics, I decided to do some digging into the country’s Olympic history. It turns out that India’s past performances have been astonishingly bad. Before 2008, it never won more than two medals in a single year, and it never won a gold medal in an individual event. Then, in Beijing, Indian athletes won three medals, including a gold in the Men’s 10-Meter Air Rifle. This year, India has won four medals, none of them gold.
So the country has improved in recent years, but it’s Olympic record is still strikingly unimpressive. While plenty of countries have low medal counts, India is the only underperformer with over a billion potential athletes. In terms of medals per capita, India has been at the bottom of the pack every year that it’s won a medal, with the exceptions of 1960 and 1968, when it was second-to-last next to China (this measure doesn’t count countries that win no medals, which are always tied at zero). But China has since risen to Olympic dominance, in conjunction with its rapid economic growth. While India has undergone similar growth, its Olympic performance has continued to flounder. In London, India is still dead last in medals per capita. It’s also third-to-last in participation per capita, ahead of Bangladesh and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
No wonder Indians aren’t brimming with enthusiasm for the games. As Americans, we get to watch our countrymen succeed in almost every event. But Indians constantly see their compatriots fail, if they even compete at all.
So what’s holding India back? I asked several Indians this question, and most of their answers could be summed up in a single word: cricket. In India, that’s the only sport that people care about. They also like football (the real kind, not the American kind), but compared to cricket, it’s basically equivalent to football in the U.S.
However, cricket is only part of the story. The Olympics include plenty of sports that most people normally don’t follow—when else is anyone concerned with badminton, water polo, or rhythmic gymnastics?—but many countries still manage to produce highly competitive athletes. Much of this is due to economic disparity. Taking up an Olympic sport usually requires access to expensive facilities, such as a pool, gymnastics equipment, or a well-kept horse. Most Indians will never see any of those things in their entire lives.
But even when population and wealth are taken into account, India’s ranking is still mediocre. I’ve read a few articles speculating the reason for this deficiency (including this one and this one). Indian bureaucracy might have something to do with it, as officials are both unwilling and unable to create a strong program. There’s also an issue of culture, as India doesn’t place a huge focus on physical fitness. For centuries, the higher classes have relied on servants to complete any task that requires more than a small amount of exertion, and recreational exercise is uncommon. Here in Jodhpur, I’ve never seen anyone on foot at a pace faster than a brisk walk.
At the closing ceremonies tomorrow, Indian athletes will march with the rest of the Olympians in a moving display of international unity. They’ll be embodying a country of 1.2 billion, meaning that each of their medals will represent hundreds of millions of Indian citizens—people who struggle daily with poverty, don’t get much exercise, and most likely, would rather be watching cricket. While the Olympics bring the nations of the world together, they also remind us what sets them apart.
NOTE: As I was researching India’s Olympic performance, I discovered the dangerously addictive pastime of perusing Olympic statistics. If you like random data displayed in clear and visually appealing ways, check out the websites below.