How to win medals in Olympics

One more Olympics has gone by. A total of 974 medals were won by 87 countries; 54 countries won at least one Gold. The U.S. flew home with the best medal tally of all time for that country with 121 medals. Notwithstanding the individual brilliance and the face-saving medals of P.V. Sindhu and Sakshi Malik, India’s performance is the poorest among all big countries.

The discourse on this is an unhappy one: there has been a lot of hand-wringing, blame on the Sports Ministry and sports administrators, complaints about lack of facilities, grumbles about corruption being the villain, and so on. India says the same things, once in four years, during and after every Olympics. It should instead look for simple lessons, develop a strategy to win medals and execute it diligently. No, I don’t believe that India should be planning for the Olympics scheduled eight or twelve years from now. While long-term thinking is good, any leader will tell you that it is too slow. We should aim to win a lot more medals in Tokyo in 2020. But how?

Numbers tell different stories

The final medals tally by country (see > tells all sorts of stories. The top 22 countries — those with a double-digit medals tally with a minimum of three gold medals — took home a total of 702 medals, or 72 per cent of all medals. The top ten suggests that only the established West (the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Australia) along with Russia, Japan and South Korea will continue to dominate. The emergence of China is explained as “you know the Chinese can dictate anything, so they are not comparable.” It is often implied that wealth and size are the reasons for the success of these countries. They have the facilities and programmes in place. They are bound to win. So goes the argument and acceptance.

This logic should be probed further. Olympics medals are won by people between the ages of 15 to 29, with a few exceptions on either side of this age band. I looked at the number of medal wins in relation to the population in the age group 15 to 29 in each country, for which data is available. This was juxtaposed with the medals won, to calculate the numbers of medals won per lakh of population in this age group. The story changes dramatically.

The graphic shows the medals won per one lakh of population in the 15-29 age group, for the same 22 countries. Tiny New Zealand (total population 4.6 million) emerges on top, with 1.8 medals per one lakh in the relevant age group, followed by Jamaica with 1.57 medals and Croatia with 1.43 medals. New Zealand won an astonishing 18 medals and has mostly gone unheralded, overshadowed by the enjoyable theatrics of Usain Bolt and others. These countries are not the richest, they do not have size and muscle, their small size restricts the depth of internal competition, they don’t have superior sports administrators or the best of facilities. So what gives?

What are the lessons?

New Zealand won 10 of its medals in rowing, sailing and canoeing, all based on its rich marine heritage, a natural strength for the country. Jamaica won in athletics, specifically in running, in which it has built a super cluster. Croatia is a mixed bag winning in athletics and water-related sports. Further analysis of winners shows a similar cluster strength, where an individual country, no matter how small or economically weak, wins a number of medals in specific sports — Italy won 7 medals in shooting, 4 in fencing; Cuba 6 in boxing; Kazakhstan 5 in weightlifting; Iran 5 in wrestling; Kenya 13 in athletics (mostly running) and so on.

Clearly building clusters of excellence by sport is the way to go. Fortunately we have several in place. Pullela Gopichand has single-handedly built a cluster for badminton in Hyderabad. Can this be further developed to field a large number of players, in order to dominate this sport in Tokyo? Haryana is a cluster of excellence for boxing and wrestling. This should be given a thrust with the intent to win big in these two sports. The Northeast has shown remarkable energy in sports, with the likes of Mary Kom and Dipa Karmakar. Focussing on sports there is a sure-fire way of bringing the region into the mainstream, a huge political agenda. Kerala is big in boat racing and martial arts, a natural place to develop capabilities in canoeing and sports like judo and taekwondo. Mallakhamb is big in Maharashtra, and gymnastics is a natural extension for this.

Across India, clusters of excellence by sport can be developed, based on natural inclinations and heritage that are visible. We can win our fair share of medals with this focus. We must start tomorrow.

Shekar Swamy is Group CEO, R.K. Swamy Hansa

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 12:36:32 AM |

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