Saturday, September 01, 2012

Needed: Olympian attitude

Sports Minister Ajay Maken feels India cannot expect to win more medals in Olympics as it has a poor Human Development Index (HDI) and low per capita Income. At six medals, it wasn’t a bad haul at all for us this time around. But before you join the deafening chorus of “Mary Kom, the Super Mom”, take a look at the medals table and you can’t not notice that North Korea is way above us with four gold medals.

Now, this is the same North Korea where half the population subsists on one-square meal, which might as well be nibbling the scrawny legs of rats. The thing is that even the hideous DPRK has a semblance of a sporting encouragement system in place. While our politicians, both at Centre and state, who are falling over one another to shower money on the medal winners, weren’t to be seen during the athletes’ trying times.

Maken’s remark is quite reminiscent of the point made in the the book Poor Economics, where MIT economists Abhijit V Banerjee and Esther Duflo attribute India’s dismal Olympic performance at least partly to very poor child nutrition. They document that rates of severe child malnutrition are much higher in India than in sub-Saharan Africa, despite the fact that most of sub-Saharan Africa is significantly poorer than India.

Let’s face it, even the healthier part of the country places far more emphasis on academic performances than sporting ones. We can crack the toughest of mathematical Olympiads, see through any IIT paper, solve the most unyielding physics problems but a hundred metre sprint is not within our DNA. Part of the blame lies with our obsession with cricket and another part is the fact that we treat athletes as freaks of the nature. Maybe this is why we still come up with occasional medals in individual events but come up a cropper in team events. If this attitude persists, we are doomed to be deemed by the world as one-trick ponies that can only provide back office support but have nothing else to show for themselves.

It’s not enough to goad the athletes from the comfy confines of our home through social networking sites. And I guess we’ll continue to be like this as long as we are served by governments that only care about destination but not the journey. For example, Maken needs to be shown this particular paragraph in a recent Grantland article written by Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier, both academic economists: “Even the significant segment of the Indian population that grows up healthy is at a disadvantage relative to China. The Chinese economic development model has focused on investment in infrastructure; things like massive airports, high-speed rail, hundreds of dams, and, yes, stadiums, world-class swimming pools, and high-tech athletic equipment. And while India is a boisterous democracy, China continues to be ruled by a Communist party, which still remembers the old Cold War days when athletic performance was a strong symbol of a country’s geopolitical clout.”

My arguments might sound a tad lazy but then, lazy sporting attitudes and lazy sports managements probably deserve lazy commentary.


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