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Why doesn’t India win medals at Olympics?

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India, a country of more than 1.3 Billion people has failed to live up to its expectation of producing athletes who can win gold at the Olympics. In terms of population size and medals won, India is the worst performer in the Olympics.

So why is India so bad at sports? Why is it that Indians perform well only at some sports like Cricket, hockey and to a lesser extent, Tennis and Badminton?

Many blame the failure on the poor sporting infrastructure in the country and corruption that afflict the sports administration in India. Perhaps most commonly identified reason is that bureaucrats and political appointees are at helm of sports administering authorities and this makes these sports authorities fundamentally incompetent. However, it is more than that.

According to Anirudh Krishna, who in his article “Why Do Some Countries Win More Olympic Medals? Lessons for Social Mobility and Poverty Reduction” argues that India’s failure has to do with effective participation; not everyone has equal access to competitive sports, or to other arenas including the political and economic ones. Many do not participate effectively on account of disinterest, disability or deterrence.  According to Amartya Sen (in the context of economy), “the ability to participate depends on a variety of enabling social conditions. It is hard to participate in the expansionary process of the market mechanism (especially in a world of globalised trade), if one is illiterate and unschooled, or if one is weakened by undernourishment and ill-health, or if social barriers… discrimination…no capital…no access…exclude substantial parts of humanity from fair economic participation.”

Mr. Krishna also states that in sports, only a few of all potential athletes in any country constitute the pool of active contestants. Olympians are drawn from the pool of effective participants and not from the entire population. The size of the effectively participation fraction is different for each country, hypothetically with the range of zero to one. Countries where opportunity is less widely distributed, the fraction is close to zero; whereas where opportunity is widely distributed, the fraction is near one. Thus the athletes in the countries with wide opportunity distribution are better able to convert their pool of talent into medals. A large population is irrelevant to an extent, very few potential athletes actually participate and complete.

While this may seem reasonable to many, others attribute this failure to the attitude of the Indian society towards sports. Sports have usually taken a back seat to studies for young Indians, or more so for the parents of the young Indians.  In India, usually parents take the decisions with respect to their child’s career, unlike in the West. According to parents in India, sports is just for recreation and a lot of importance is given to academics. Sports are never a priority for majority of the parents in India.

With emphasis on academics rather than physical education, we don’t have the best young talent. Further rickety infrastructure, lack of equipment for the athletes combined with sports policies that are anti-athlete; all play a role in degrading India’s chances of winning an Olympic medal.



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