LONDON - While Israelis are feeling down in the dumps at the lack of any Olympic medals in the London Games, some have been making the excuse that a nation of little over seven million citizens, less than 0.1 percent of the world's population, has little claim to the podium. But a closer look at the medal standings seems to prove that demography is not the only reason a country excels in the Olympics.
The most populated nation on earth, China (1.3 billion ) currently tops the medal count, with the third most populous, the United States (300 million ) hot on its heels. But India, which now has 1.2 billion people and is projected to overtake China on population count within a few decades, is currently languishing in 45th place in the Olympics table, with one silver and two bronze medals only.
As this piece is being written, boxer Chungneijang Mery Kom Hmangte lost her Women's Flyweight semifinal, ensuring another bronze medal. That projected medal would push India's standing to somewhere around 33rd place, between Slovenia and Georgia.
There is nothing anomalous about the poor showing of the largest democracy in the world. On the contrary, with a projected four medals in the London 2012 Games this will have been the biggest haul of the Indian team since the first Olympics in which it competed, in 1900.
Anyone who has spent a weekend on the teeming streets of Delhi or Mumbai knows that India is a country with a sporting spirit. The untold thousands of children and teenagers who occupy every empty space, setting up a makeshift wicket and using a plank as a bat to play the street version of cricket, are evidence enough.
Cricket is big money nowadays, its best players multimillionaires thanks to television rights and sponsorship deals, but it seems that this is the only sport Indians as a nation are interested in. And cricket, even when the Olympics are being hosted by the country that invented the game, is still not an Olympic sport. No other team sports have gained a national following, nor have gymnastics, swimming or track and field succeeded in capturing the imagination even of India's upwardly mobile middle class.
Nirpal Dhaliwal, a British writer of Indian extraction, says, "After cricket, the most popular sports on Indian television are chess, spelling bees and mathematic competitions. Muscular sports just don't interest them. For most Indians, it's about brains, not brawn."
Mix of history, politics, economics and sociology
Cricket is a sport which involves mainly skill and relatively very little running and physical exertion, and of course the world chess champion is the Indian player Viswanathan Anand. And yet, as every sixth person on the planet is Indian you would expect India to win at least a dozen medals or so out of the nearly 1,000 gold, silver and bronze on offer.
The reasons are a mixture of politics, economics, sociology and history. While the populations of China and India are rapidly reaching parity the difference in GDP remains vast, with Chinese citizens making over three times what an average Indian makes. "We are a poor nation where the majority still doesn't know where the next meal will come from. So priorities are a little different," says Indian journalist Saikat Datta.
The lack of funds means that besides cricket, which is played on grass fields, many of which India inherited from the British Raj, there is virtually no national investment in sports infrastructure and training, which would be crucial to building an winning Olympic team.
The lack of modern infrastructure has even lead to India losing its one national advantage in an Olympic sport - from 1928 to 1980, in every Olympics but one, India's men's field hockey team returned home with a medal, usually gold. But for three decades now there have been no hockey medals. The reason is that for the past 40 years international hockey has been played on synthetic surfaces, where the ball behaves differently than on grass. India is only now getting around to equipping its major training centers with synthetic hockey surfaces, but a whole generation grew up playing on grass, and India's traditional edge was squandered.
But it is not just India's poverty that does not allow the majority of its billion and a quarter citizens to event take an interest in sports, let alone train at an international level. The scourge of politics and corruption is also at fault.
"We have lost our sporting culture to excessive bureaucracy and nepotism," says Datta. "Sports in India is heavily politicized. Politicians head all sporting bodies."
As a prime example he cites Suresh Kalmadi, a senior politician, who despite being indicted on corruption charges is still the president of the Indian Olympic Association.
Not that corruption is a rare accusation when dealing with senior Olympic officials in many parts of the world, but countries that are serious about winning medals run a tight ship, at least where the recruitment and training of athletes is concerned, talent-spotting from a young age and enrolling the Olympic candidates in special schools and training programs. But that just isn't the Indian way.
Since the Indian government is not making an effort, at least one Indian billionaire, steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, is trying to grow medalists with the Mittal Champions Trust, in which he invested $10 million in the hope that some of the athletes it supports will bring a medal back to the subcontinent. So far it's not working very well. Despite sponsoring 16 athletes of this Olympic Indian team, none of the four London medalists were from the Mittal list.
Mittal is a westernized businessman based in Britain, but the sort of sponsorship that works for athletes in other countries may not fit India.
"The entire culture of the Olympics, of individual achievements and medals, is almost inimical to the Indian tradition," Dhaliwal says, adding, "In the same way that American advertisements cannot be copied for Indian television, since different cultures have different aspirations and experiences, in the same way, the Olympic ideal and ambition just doesn't exist for most Indians, even if they had sufficient money and physicality."
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