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.
Despite warnings, Trump gazed directly at the eclipse.
During the solar eclipse today, President Donald Trump stepped onto the White House balcony with his wife and his son Barron, and he looked up at the sun.
According to White House reporters, an aide shouted a warning that he should not look at the sun. Nevertheless, he persisted.
There were parts of the United States, along path of totality, that allowed people to look directly at the eclipse. But Washington, D.C., was not among them.
How much damage can a person do by staring at the sun for a few seconds?
As many children are warned, there is indeed no “safe” amount of time to stare directly at the sun. Note that no ophthalmologists recommend any amount of glancing or squinting at the eclipse. Against the energy of the sun, human eyelids are like a dam built of tissue paper.
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “Beyond the Wall,” the sixth episode of the seventh season.
Every week for the seventh season of Game of Thrones, three Atlantic staffers will discuss new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.
The past week brought violent conflict over symbols and values held sacred—and an act of sacrilege.
Taboo and sacredness are among the most important words needed to understand Charlottesville and its aftermath. Taboo refers to things that are forbidden for religious or supernatural reasons. All traditional societies have such prohibitions—things you must not do, touch, or eat, not because they are bad for you directly, but because doing so is an abomination, which may bring divine retribution. But every society also makes some things sacred, rallying around a few deeply revered values, people, or places, which bind all members together and make them willing to sacrifice for the common good. The past week brought violent conflict over symbols and values held sacred—and saw President Trump commit an act of sacrilege by violating one of our society’s strongest taboos.
The cartoonist defended the president in a podcast debate with Sam Harris. The portrait he painted of Trump supporters was not flattering.
Sam Harris, the atheist philosopher and neuroscientist, has recently been using his popular Waking Up podcast to discuss Donald Trump, whom he abhors, with an ideologically diverse series of guests, all of whom believe that the president is a vile huckster.
This began to wear on some of his listeners. Wasn’t Harris always warning against echo chambers? Didn’t he believe in rigorous debate with a position’s strongest proponents? At their urging, he extended an invitation to a person that many of those listeners regard as President Trump’s most formidable defender: Scott Adams, the creator of the cartoon Dilbert, who believes that Trump is “a master persuader.”
Their conversation was posted online late last month. It is one of the most peculiar debates about a president I have ever encountered. And it left me marveling that parts of Trump’s base think well of Adams when his views imply such negative things about them.
“Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.”
Ever since it was first published in 1982, readers—including this one—have thrilled to “Total Eclipse,” Annie Dillard’s masterpiece of literary nonfiction, which describes her personal experience of a solar eclipse in Washington State. It first appeared in Dillard’s landmark collection, Teaching a Stone to Talk, and was recently republished in The Abundance, a new anthology of her work. The Atlantic is pleased to offer the essay in full, here, until the day after the ‘Great American Eclipse’ on August 21.
It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass. It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread. It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering. We had crossed the mountains that day, and now we were in a strange place—a hotel in central Washington, in a town near Yakima. The eclipse we had traveled here to see would occur early in the next morning.
A tour of the solar eclipse’s path reveals a nation that fought to maintain a different sort of totality.
Totality is everything, say those who chase solar eclipses. When the moon fully obscures the sun and casts its shadow on Earth, the result is like nothing you’ve seen before—not even a partial eclipse. A merely partial eclipse does not flip day to night, because the sun is bright enough to light our fields of vision with only a tiny fraction of its power. But when the sun and moon align just so, a little piece of Earth goes dark in the middle of the day. In this path of totality, night comes suddenly and one can see the shape of the moon as a circle darker than black, marked by the faint backlight of the sun’s corona. Astronomers and eclipse chasers chart carefully to be sure that they can watch from exactly the right place at the right time. They know that you cannot compromise with the sun. For a dark sky, the sun must be banished altogether.
“Medicare for all” is a popular idea, but for Americans, transitioning to such a system would be difficult, to say the least.
French women supposedly don’t get fat, and in the minds of many Americans, they also don’t get stuck with très gros medical bills. There’s long been a dream among some American progressives to truly live as the “Europeans1” do and have single-payer health care.
Republicans’ failure—so far—to repeal and replace Obamacare has breathed new life into the single-payer dream. In June, the majority of Americans told Pew that the government has the responsibility to ensure health coverage for everyone, and 33 percent say this should take the form of a single government program. The majority of Democrats, in that poll, supported single payer. A June poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation even found that a slim majority of all Americans favor single payer.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
The scientists are all talking like it’s a sure thing.
On August 21, the “moon” will pass between the Earth and the sun, obscuring the light of the latter. The government agency NASA says this will result in “one of nature’s most awe-inspiring sights.” The astronomers there claim to have calculated down to the minute exactly when and where this will happen, and for how long. They have reportedly known about this eclipse for years, just by virtue of some sort of complex math.
This seems extremely unlikely. I can’t even find these eclipse calculations on their website to check them for myself.
Meanwhile the scientists tell us we can’t look at it without special glasses because “looking directly at the sun is unsafe.”