Used to be the Olympics mirrored the Cold War – a head-to-head battle for medals between the United States and The Soviet Union.
Now, it’s between the USA and China. In London, American might won out with 104 medals versus China’s 84.
I suppose the Olympic medal counts give you a good idea of which nations are world powers. The United States, China, Russia, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Australia, France…Brazil is up there in the top 20. But, um, where is my homeland?
Keep looking down the list. Keep going. Down, down, down. There, just below Croatia is India with six medals – none gold.
So why is the world’s largest democracy and the second most populous nation unable to win? Can India not do better than six medals with its 1.2 billion people?
Please don’t think that Indians don’t make good athletes. They have shown they can win big in sports like cricket and hockey.
Perhaps the dearth of medals can be explained by a lack of state-run athletics programs in the vein of China’s or those of the former USSR. Half of India’s population still lives in abject poverty. They cannot afford to send children to expensive training camps on their own.
But what about India’s new middle class who now have disposable income or those who have accumulated enormous wealth in the last two decades?
Here’s where I think the culture comes in. Indian parents are way too preoccupied with education. Every parent’s dream is to see his or her child come first in class and get into one of the best colleges in the land.
There is no time for sports. Not serious sports, anyway.
And even if there were, it’s too much of a gamble.
What if little Rita spent her entire life perfecting the art of balancing on a 4-inch beam and then fell under the Olympic spotlight? What would she be left with?
American kids still have a life, they still are able to go to college. But for Rita, the opportunities do not exist unless she is a star student. There’s just way too much competition for slots in schools – too many people, not enough facilities.
Abhijit Kunte, a chess grandmaster who runs a nonprofit to help groom athletes, told the New York Times that it should fall to Indian schools to inspire and train boys and girls. He suggested Indian schools follow the U.S. model.
But the Times reported that the Indian government did not spend a single rupee in the last two years on the promotion of sports in schools and colleges.
Sad, because champion athletes are admired in India. The best in their fields climb to superhero status — starting with the giants of cricket like Sachin Tendulkar down to Saina Nehwal, who won a bronze in badminton in London.
But I suspect many parents think like mine did. They prefer that their children graduate suma cum laude from college than come first in the 200-meter freestyle.
Well, perhaps at least until they are on the stand with gold around their neck.
Here’s to Rio.