With the opening of the Beijing Olympics, many wonder whether China’s grand coming-out party will also mark the occasion when it wrests dominance of the medal tally from the United States. China’s dedicated athletes are widely assumed to have dozens of gold and silver medals in their grasp. Whether or not they overtake the US, however, one thing is certain: China’s neighbor and regional geopolitical rival, India, will be lucky to win even a single medal. International sport is, of course, an exercise in national chauvinism by other means. At some level, we all pretend to tune into the Olympics to admire human athleticism. But none of us can deny the attraction of the flags under which those athletes compete, the anthem that is played for the winners, and, ultimately, that impossible-to-ignore, regularly-updated medal tally, listing the gold, silver, and bronze medals awarded to each country, the Games’ real honor roll. Every Indian who follows the Olympics has cringed scanning the daily list of medal winners, eyes traveling down past dozens of nations big and small before alighting on a solitary Indian bronze in tennis or wrestling. Worse yet, we have all known the shame of waiting day after day for India to appear on the list at all, as countries a hundredth our size record gold upon gold and Indian athletes are barely mentioned among the also-rans. Indians like to think we can hold our own against the best in the world in any field: our Kalidasa can stand up to their Shakespeare, our Ramanujan to their Einstein, our Bollywood to their Hollywood and, these days, our Infosys to their Microsoft. In sport, however, it is a different story. Our cricketers have come close to being considered the best in the world, but cricket is not an Olympic sport. Our sole world champion in any sport is the chess grandmaster Vishwanathan Anand – in another non-Olympic sport, and one that calls for brain, not brawn. In fact, in the Olympics, India’s record has declined over time. The one gold medal we had become used to winning since the 1920’s, in field hockey, has proved elusive in recent Games, as our players have stumbled on Astroturf. This year, India’s hockey players failed even to qualify for the Games. In everything where simple human prowess is at stake – running, jumping, swimming, lifting, throwing – Indians simply don’t have what it takes. An Indian beauty queen, Madhu Sapre, once became an unwitting victim of Indians’ sense of national shame at our sporting insignificance. She was unjustly denied a Miss World title in 1992 because of her answer to the final-round question, “What is the first thing you would do if you became the ruler of your country? Her response – “I would build a sports stadium – was considered stupid by the judges, and the almost-certain crown (she was the overwhelming favorite) slipped from her grasp. Sapre’s answer might not have been the brightest, but if the judges had any idea of how desperate Indians are for sporting success, they would have understood that she was not expressing such an absurd priority. Why do Indian athletes perform so badly? The explanations range from the anthropological to the borderline racist: Indians don’t have the genes, the build, the stamina, the climate, whatever. There are structural and infrastructural explanations: lack of training facilities, gymnasiums, running tracks, equipment, financial resources. We are a developing country, it is said; after all, it is not just your eye against his, your legs against hers, but what you can do against their trainer, their running shoe, their ergodynamic costume, their titanium archer’s bow. But those rationales won’t do: other developing countries, from Jamaica to Ethiopia, regularly rake in the medals. Our talent pool isn’t really a billion, some argue; it’s only the well off and middle class, maybe 300 million strong, who can afford to play sports. But even that is a larger population base than a hundred countries that do better than India at the Olympics. On the other hand, the incentives for success are not great; the years of sacrifice and effort it takes to become a world-class athlete are simply not a realistic option to an Indian who needs to make a living, and sponsors are few and far between (and they are all spending their sponsorship money on cricket). Finally, there’s the usual Indian problem: sports administrative bodies and government departments are ridden with patronage and petty bossism, with officials more interested in protecting their turf (and enjoying paid vacations to sporting events) than in promoting athletes. With all these factors, failure in the Olympics, it is suggested, is encoded in our national DNA. Yet success or failure still depends on the individual athlete. Indian genes in a developing country did not prevent Vijay Singh emerging from Fiji to rival Tiger Woods as the best golfer in the world. And if Indians can be better than white and black sportsmen on the cricket field, why can’t they beat them in an Olympic stadium? The newly globalized India can no longer content itself with mediocrity in this global competition. For a land with world-class computer scientists, mathematicians, biotech researchers, filmmakers, and novelists, sporting excellence is the last unconquered frontier. But 2008 won’t be the year in which that frontier is breached.
Shashi Tharoor,an acclaimed novelist and commentator, is a former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).