What matters for Olympic medals?

[ Sachin Rana ]

Our performance at the Olympics always leaves us wanting. It is also not true that any developing country like India cannot produce great players who can bring laurels in mega sports competitions such as the Olympics. India has produced many world-class talented players in sports such as cricket, badminton, tennis, chess, shooting, weightlifting, wrestling and others. And the same can be said about countries such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Argentina, etc.

For the sake of this article, let’s have a discussion about the mega sports event, Tokyo Olympics-2020. A total of 11,656 athletes from 206 competing National Olympic Committees (NOC)/countries participated from 23 July to 8 August, 2021. Altogether 339 sports events were organized by the host nation, Japan, in 50 disciplines of 33 sports. From India, 126 athletes participated in 18 sports, that too in a record 69 events. Even though our medal tally at the recently concluded Tokyo Olympics-2020 has been the highest so far with seven medals, consisting of one gold medal, two silver medals and four bronze medals, I am not contented. Are you?

The eternal question of this meek performance of ours at this mega sport event demands a multi-parameter analysis. In my considered hypothesis, the performance of the teams in sports competition can be correlated and attributed to various factors, including the socioeconomic conditions of the participants and their society. The same have been argued in the discourse of this article. I shall be refereeing to the data as shown in Table 1.

One may also argue possibly that the population of a country is also an important factor in augmenting the medal tally. But the facts don’t support this. Comparing the performance of the NOCs in Column 3 with the data in Column 4 and Column 5 it is evident that the number of people back home does not make any remarkable difference in the performance in the competition. Rather, the point to ponder is effective participation of the population in sports. In general public health, education standards, public awareness and participation in sports, access to the sports and then equality in participation play a much larger role in the overall achievement in the sports events.

Another important factor is the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. The GDP in clear terms states the economic status of any country. It has been seen in the analysis that countries having higher GDPs are performing better at sports competitions, including the Olympics. This trend has been also supported by economy researchers in their sports performance analysis. So, why is it so?

It may be easily attributed to the facts that the countries placed at the higher economic pedestals are able to place more financial resources for the sports infrastructure development and are able to provide better support facilities to their athletes. This improves the morale of the athletes and consequently their performance, as shown in the Column 6 of Table 1. Higher GDP per capita also adduces that the basic needs of the citizens are taken care of and they can easily channel their energies for self-actualization. The citizens are able to look beyond the daily struggles of the lives for survival and can work towards excelling in the other fields of human excellence such as research and developments, innovations, literature, architecture, medicines, engineering and technology and the same also holds true for the sports.

Another factor that can be attributed the performance at this quadrennial event is the size of the participating contingent (Column 7) and the number of the games in which the teams are participating (Column 8). The countries having top ranks in the final medal tally have participated in most of the events and hence were able to collect more gold and silver. Further, it can be easily made out that more the number of the team members, more are the chances of the qualifying the first basic hurdle and greater is the probability to score better and collect a medal for the country. Two of the events – women cross-country mountain biking and women 100 metre sprint – at this Tokyo Olympics were podium sweeps by Switzerland and Jamaica, respectively. The reason is the same. Mathematically, it is important to bring the odds in your favour if you are competing in such an event. The same is true for our increasingly better performance in the Olympics as we are sending larger contingents and are also participating in more number of sports events.

Column 10 discusses the human development index (HDI), which is an impact assessment tool for assessing the quality of human lives. The index consists of the health, education and income of the given country and provides a measure of human development which is comparable between countries and over the time. Efforts have been made here to compare the HDI values of the top performers of Tokyo-2020 and the correlation is quite vivid, with one exception of China. The nations which are doing better in the HDI index are also performing better at the Olympic medal tally. Therefore, it is quite unmistakable to assume that holistic development is a precondition for better performance in the competition. During the research for this article, one other more captivating variable, level of urbanization (Column 11), was considered and it was found that it closely correlates with the medal tally. The urbanization is clear indication of dominance of secondary and tertiary sectors of economy over the primary sector of economy. The higher reliance of manufacturing and service industry and mechanized agriculture creates opportunity for more free time availability in the hands of the citizens and thereby to follow their passions and excel in various fields, including the sports. The relatively higher GDP in these developed and developing economies supports both public and private investment. The same holds true for the sports sector as well and this all boils downs to better medal tally.

Hence, to conclude, it is quite vivid that performance of the athletes is limited by the conditions back home to a certain extent. The socioeconomic condition of the country is of equal importance as that of the individual player. The wealth of the nations, the human development indices, level of urbanization and the quantum of participation in sport events are the factors which governs the medal tally along with hard work, accuracy, deftness and the perseverance of the dedicated and focused athletes.

Therefore, I am hopeful that our medal tally will improve significantly as we progress in these factors in the times to come. (The writer is an IAS officer. The views expressed are personal.)