The world's largest democracy wins fewer medals per person than any other country. It's been priced out of its most competitive sport, but could national priorities also play a role?
A member of India's field hockey team reacts after losing an Olympics match against New Zealand. (Reuters)
India is a big deal. It has the world's second-largest population and its ninth largest economy; it's the biggest democracy in existence and one of the oldest nations in history. But India is not very good at winning Olympic medals. There's no single or certain answer to why, but India's astonishingly poor performance offers some insights into just what does make an Olympic winner, and doesn't.
India sent 83 athletes to London and has so far only won two medals, a bronze and a silver, both in shooting. That's not atypical for the country, which, though it's been competing since 1900, has only won 22 medals in every Olympics combined, half of those in field hockey. It has never won a medal at the winter games. By comparison, the U.S. has won 37 medals just this summer, and over 2,500 overall. At the 2008 Beijing olympics, India had the lowest ratio of medals-won to population of any competing country: one medal per 383 million Indians. And that year was their best Olympic performance ever.
If you rank countries by the total number of Olympic medals they've ever won, India places 55th in the world, tied with Morocco and Thailand, though India has participated in twice as many Olympic games as either country. (The ranking is closer to 50 if you exclude now-defunct countries such as Czechoslovakia or East Germany.) It is regularly outperformed by much poorer countries, such as Ethiopia, Kenya, and North Korea. The Wall Street Journal's daily feature on India's London 2012 performance can feel like an endless barrage of setbacks and disappointments.
The obvious question -- why does India, despite a population of over one billion, field so few medalists? -- is as frequently asked as it is difficult to answer. There's no consensus, no obvious explanation, no single unified theory of Indian Olympic under-performance. Though there are certainly some factors particular to India that might explain this trend, this story might say as much about the better-performing countries and their ability to exploit certain advantages that India lacks.
It's important to note that Indian athletes are no slouches. Indian cricket and field hockey teams are routinely among the world's finest, and the country has an outstanding record in a number of events at the Commonwealth Games, in which 50-plus former British colonies compete in a sort of mini-Olympics. After all, counting Olympic medals would be a poor way of quantifying a country's overall athletic talent, because that's not what the Olympics are about. India might have thousands of the world's best runners, swimmers, archers, or basketball players, but they'd earn the same number of medals for fourth place as they would for 40th. So there's nothing about India or Indians that says they have to under-perform in sports, because they often don't.
So how to explain the Olympic medal deficiency? There are a number of theories. Probably the most common is that both India as a country and Indians as individuals just have other priorities. "Sport was never a priority for a majority of [Indian] parents and their kids," Indian sports psychologist Madhuli Kulkarni told EuroNews. "In fact we have a saying in Hindi - India's National language - 'Kheloge kudoge to honge kharab, padhoge likhoge to banoge nawab' which means that your life will be a waste if you play but if you study or do well in academics you will be a king."
It's not just that Indians are poor -- Indian GDP per capita is well into the bottom quartile of all countries, ranked among landlocked African nations and still-recovering former warzones -- but they're also weakened by poor infrastructure and poor governance, which touches everything from public health to education to opportunities for advancement. Derek Thompson explained why rich countries tend to perform so well in the Olympics, boosted by better access to athletics infrastructure such as swimming pools and tennis courts, by "talent magnetism," and other factors.
But there's also the economic safety net that makes it easier for Western (or Japanese or South Korean) would-be Olympians to take a chance on athletics. If an American amateur gymnast spends a few years deemphasizing school so she can labor toward her dream of a gold medal and it doesn't work out, she still has a good shot at a middle class life. But if her Indian equivalent does the same, she may never recover from all those hours she didn't spend on education or job training, making a middle class life less likely for either her or her children.
And, though India has an enormous population, its "effectively participating population" in athletics is much smaller, according to a paper by economists Anirudh Krishna and Eric Haglund. Huge swathes of India's 1.2 billion, when it comes to international athletics, effectively don't count. They're excluded by poor childhood health, physical isolation by poor transportation from the athletics centers in the big cities, or often because they simply are not sufficiently aware of the Olympics or the sports involved. Even the lack of connectedness across Indian communities may play a role, as the idea of competing for national prestige just doesn't carry the same appeal or logic. It's not just that so many Indians are poor, in other words, it's that India itself is so socially and physically fragmented.
Other developing countries besides India have managed to do quite well at the Olympics. China led the world in gold medals in 2008 and could do the same this year, so why not India? Krishna and Trager's theory may help explain this; though China has hundreds of millions of rural and urban poor, it also has a skyrocketing population of well-connected, well-educated, well-nourished citizens who make up the "effectively participating population." It's also possible to see a slight correlation between Olympic medals and developing countries that are run by strong central governments interested in fostering national prestige. Cuba, North Korea, China today, and once upon a time the Soviet Union invest heavily in finding and fostering competitive athletes. The Indian government, at this point, would probably just like to keep the lights on, and is perhaps too decentralized for a China-style campaign to galvanize national athletic talent.
Still, income and governance alone can't explain India's under-performance, since a handful of other poor countries without a strong central government have still found a way to win far more medals. But it looks as if these outliers typically excel in just one or two sports in which, for whatever reason, they've managed to punch way above their weight. Turkey has won over two-thirds of its unusually numerous medals in wrestling; Jamaica got 52 of its 53 medals in track and field events; Kazakhstan dominates in weightlifting. Perhaps most famous are Kenya and Ethiopia, two of the world's poorest countries that reliably produce its strongest runners. The story behind those two is complicated, but it could have to do in part with innate physical differences in certain populations along the Great Rift Valley. India, it seems, has yet to identify an Olympic event where its people might exceptionally excel.
The theme that many (though not all) of these theories seem to touch on is money, whether it's the money that Indian families don't have to give their children a shot at athletic glory or money that the Indian government can't spend on public health or won't on the expensive prestige-building effort to trim 0.2 seconds off a runner's 100-meter dash.
Even Field Hockey, historically India's greatest strength at the Olympics, is a reminder that gold, silver, and bronze all cost paper. Between 1928 and 1968, India won all but two of the field hockey gold medals; the other two went to breakaway Pakistan. (West Germany won in 1972, with Pakistan and India coming in second and third.) But, in 1976, the Olympics switched from natural turf to synthetic, which is far more expensive. All the Indian players who practiced on fields and grass patches were learning skills no longer suited to international competition, and only the communities with the money and will to build a synthetic field could train viable contenders. India has won only a single field hockey medal in the 40 years since it last competed on natural turf, priced out of a sport that had once brought it so much Olympic glory.
Should you drink more coffee? Should you take melatonin? Can you train yourself to need less sleep? A physician’s guide to sleep in a stressful age.
During residency, Iworked hospital shifts that could last 36 hours, without sleep, often without breaks of more than a few minutes. Even writing this now, it sounds to me like I’m bragging or laying claim to some fortitude of character. I can’t think of another type of self-injury that might be similarly lauded, except maybe binge drinking. Technically the shifts were 30 hours, the mandatory limit imposed by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, but we stayed longer because people kept getting sick. Being a doctor is supposed to be about putting other people’s needs before your own. Our job was to power through.
The shifts usually felt shorter than they were, because they were so hectic. There was always a new patient in the emergency room who needed to be admitted, or a staff member on the eighth floor (which was full of late-stage terminally ill people) who needed me to fill out a death certificate. Sleep deprivation manifested as bouts of anger and despair mixed in with some euphoria, along with other sensations I’ve not had before or since. I remember once sitting with the family of a patient in critical condition, discussing an advance directive—the terms defining what the patient would want done were his heart to stop, which seemed likely to happen at any minute. Would he want to have chest compressions, electrical shocks, a breathing tube? In the middle of this, I had to look straight down at the chart in my lap, because I was laughing. This was the least funny scenario possible. I was experiencing a physical reaction unrelated to anything I knew to be happening in my mind. There is a type of seizure, called a gelastic seizure, during which the seizing person appears to be laughing—but I don’t think that was it. I think it was plain old delirium. It was mortifying, though no one seemed to notice.
As I mentioned in this post in late November, and in this followup, and also in a discussion with Diane Rehm on her new podcast series yesterday, Donald Trump’s lies differ from those we have encountered from other national figures, even Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton during their respective impeachments. The difference is that Trump seemingly does not care that evidence is immediately at hand to disprove what he says. If he believes what he’s saying, at least in that moment, why shouldn’t we?
For the record, the latest entry of this sort is the repeated insistence by Trump and his associates that he won a “landslide” or “major” victory. For instance, this was his transition team’s response to reports of Russian attempts to swing the election in his favor:
How Vladimir Putin is making the world safe for autocracy
Since the end of World War II, the most crucial underpinning of freedom in the world has been the vigor of the advanced liberal democracies and the alliances that bound them together. Through the Cold War, the key multilateral anchors were NATO, the expanding European Union, and the U.S.-Japan security alliance. With the end of the Cold War and the expansion of NATO and the EU to virtually all of Central and Eastern Europe, liberal democracy seemed ascendant and secure as never before in history.
Under the shrewd and relentless assault of a resurgent Russian authoritarian state, all of this has come under strain with a speed and scope that few in the West have fully comprehended, and that puts the future of liberal democracy in the world squarely where Vladimir Putin wants it: in doubt and on the defensive.
The same part of the brain that allows us to step into the shoes of others also helps us restrain ourselves.
You’ve likely seen the video before: a stream of kids, confronted with a single, alluring marshmallow. If they can resist eating it for 15 minutes, they’ll get two. Some do. Others cave almost immediately.
This “Marshmallow Test,” first conducted in the 1960s, perfectly illustrates the ongoing war between impulsivity and self-control. The kids have to tamp down their immediate desires and focus on long-term goals—an ability that correlates with their later health, wealth, and academic success, and that is supposedly controlled by the front part of the brain. But a new study by Alexander Soutschek at the University of Zurich suggests that self-control is also influenced by another brain region—and one that casts this ability in a different light.
The personality test isn't perfect, but it plays to people's desire to understand themselves and others.
A group of young adults shyly meet for the first time on the second floor of an empty Manhattan shopping mall. The stores are all closed for the weekend, and other than a man stopping in the lobby to read his phone, this group is the only sign of activity.
“I actually really like clubbing,” shares one guy.
The group goes silent.
“Get out of the circle,” a woman whispers.
Everyone in this group took the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a personality test. They all tested as the same type (one that tends to be introverted), joined an online group for others who got the same result, and decided to meet up.
Which explains why they’re meeting in an empty food court: It’s perfect for a group of people who like quietude. In this crowd of 20-something New Yorkers, the clubber is, truly, an oddball.
A profanity-filled new self-help book argues that life is kind of terrible, so you should value your actions over your emotions.
Put down the talking stick. Stop fruitlessly seeking "closure" with your peevish co-worker. And please, don't bother telling your spouse how annoying you find their tongue-clicking habit—sometimes honesty is less like a breath of fresh air and more like a fart. That’s the argument of Michael Bennett and Sarah Bennett, the father-daughter duo behind the new self-help book F*ck Feelings.
The elder Bennett is a psychiatrist and American Psychiatric Association distinguished fellow. His daughter is a comedy writer. Together, they provide a tough-love, irreverent take on “life's impossible problems.” The crux of their approach is that life is hard and negative emotions are part of it. The key is to see your “bullshit wishes” for just what they are (bullshit), and instead to pursue real, achievable goals.
I traveled to every country on earth. In some cases, the adventure started before I could get there.
Last summer, my Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca landed at Malabo International Airport in Equatorial Guinea, and I completed a 50-year mission: I had officially, and legally, visited every recognized country on earth.
This means 196 countries: the 193 members of the United Nations, plus Taiwan, Vatican City, and Kosovo, which are not members but are, to varying degrees, recognized as independent countries by other international actors.
In five decades of traveling, I’ve crossed countries by rickshaw, pedicab, bus, car, minivan, and bush taxi; a handful by train (Italy, Switzerland, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, and Greece); two by riverboat (Gabon and Germany); Norway by coastal steamer; Gambia and the Amazonian parts of Peru and Ecuador by motorized canoe; and half of Burma by motor scooter. I rode completely around Jamaica on a motorcycle and Nauru on a bicycle. I’ve also crossed three small countries on foot (Vatican City, San Marino, and Liechtenstein), and parts of others by horse, camel, elephant, llama, and donkey. I confess that I have not visited every one of the 7,107 islands in the Philippine archipelago or most of the more than 17,000 islands constituting Indonesia, but I’ve made my share of risky voyages on the rickety inter-island rustbuckets you read about in the back pages of the Times under headlines like “Ship Sinks in Sulu Sea, 400 Presumed Lost.”
When you’re alone in a cabin in the Alaskan wilderness, the simplest question becomes the most complicated: How do you fill a day?
A couple of years ago, I woke to three birds circling over my body, barking. I’d been sleeping in a bivouac, a kind of raincoat for a sleeping bag, camped in the tundra of Alaska’s Kantishna Hills. I unzipped the bivouac and popped my head out, peering up as the eerie silhouetted birds swooped toward me. The moon was a low and yellow sliver in the eastern sky; clouds to the northwest stacked in electric oranges and dark purples.
The birds' bodies stretched wide, their faces were flat. I could see faint stripes on the undersides of their extended wings. One of them landed on my food canister nearby and hissed. The other two circled about fifteen feet above the ground. They rose, then dove toward me, then rose and circled once more. They kept a rhythm: every few circles, one of them plunged toward me again. They eyed me from above, barking all the while like angry watchdogs. When one came close enough to claw at me, I flung my arms overhead and screamed, “Stop! What’s wrong! Go away! Please!”
A chain helmed by the nominee for labor secretary has unseated Chick-Fil-A as the perfect encapsulation of this cultural moment.
Despite his predilections for KFC or taco bowls, or his appearances in ads for Pizza Hut and McDonald’s, the president-elect is really a Carl’s Jr. kind of guy. The California-based chain is best known for its oversized burgers, hypersexualized ads, and confusing affiliation with Hardee’s—the fast-food chain it acquired back in 1997. Like Trump, Carl’s Jr. aspires to flashiness and brashly appeals to men. It’s slogan? Eat Like You Mean It. Trump made this unspoken kinship official on Thursday, when he announced Andy Puzder, the longtime CEO of Carl’s Jr and Hardee’s, as his choice for labor secretary.
A professor of cognitive science argues that the world is nothing like the one we experience through our senses.
As we go about our daily lives, we tend to assume that our perceptions—sights, sounds, textures, tastes—are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it—or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion—we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality. Still, we bank on the fact that our simulation is a reasonably decent one. If it wasn’t, wouldn’t evolution have weeded us out by now? The true reality might be forever beyond our reach, but surely our senses give us at least an inkling of what it’s really like.