Neither the Will nor the Cash: Why India Wins So Few Olympic Medals

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?

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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.