What’s the deal with India and Sports?

India Rising

Okay, I’m really not talking about all the deals done during the Commonwealth Games!  I’m talking about this huge, vast, massive, large…did I mention huge? country which is  –

  • The largest democracy in the world. Check.
  • World’s second most populous country with over 1.2 billion people (soon to be the most populous). Check.
  • Rising economic world power. Check.
  • A nation of increasing disposable incomes and growing middle-class. Check.
  • Etc., etc, etc…

But, when it comes to participation and accomplishment in Sports – where the heck are the Indians? (I include those who live in India and anyone of Indian descent living anywhere in the world when I say “Indians”).

Indians in Sports

This is a baffling question for me. I don’t have the answers.  All I know is that there is something wrong with the ratio of virtually any metric (people, per capita, babies born, economic growth, etc.) and participation in Sports!

I think we have actually done respectably well in “brain” sports – such as Viswanath Anand in chess. [For example, here’s another baffling but quite contrary question – how come virtually every geography bee and spelling bee winner in the US is of Indian descent?  🙂 ]

Now, back to the main question at hand.  Did you know that India is the country with the lowest number of Olympic medals per capita? Well, now you do, and I’m sure that was information you could have done well without.

China, Risen

Let’s talk about that other Asian country to the north that we (and others) love to draw comparisons with.  China led the gold medal count (51) at the last Olympics which were held in Beijing in 2008 while India won one.  Hmmm….I was going to list a bunch of stuff about China but perhaps it’s best to just stop at that?

Actually, no, I’m going to continue. This is intriguing stuff that I am discovering for myself. The government of China puts a real emphasis on sports – on funding and training young talent to become professionals. As the evidence clearly demonstrates.

Here’s some trivia for you: the most popular sport in China is Table Tennis (Huh?). In fact, the awesome strength and dominance of the Chinese in this sport has triggered a series of rule changes in the International Table Tennis Federation and as part of the Olympics.

But in addition to that, virtually every other sport has a following and active participation.

Even cricket! Did you know that cricket is a fast growing sport in China today? This has been helped by the old ‘Hong Kong as a British colony’ connection. But what is truly fascinating is that China has set out some specific long-term goals for cricket (Cricket!).

The Chinese Cricket Association has set itself these amazing goals for the next 14 years: 

  • 2009: Have 720 teams across the country in a well-organized structure
  • 2015: Have 20,000 players and 2,000 coaches
  • 2019: Qualify for the World Cup
  • 2020: Gain Test status

Wow and Whoa! Watch out, India and the rest of the cricket playing world!!!

Cricket Mania is Not Enough

Speaking of cricket, this is the sport which has the largest following and the largest investment, by far, in India. It’s really good that one such sport does exist!  But even here, it’s not clear that India really shines to its full potential, or even half potential (notwithstanding the World Cup crown).

I found a great opinion piece on this topic here. To quote from this Wharton school write-up:

“So, while the cricket victory was impressive and deserves to be celebrated, India has to figure out ways to improve performance in other sports, in keeping with its status as an emerging world economic power and a population of 1.2 billion”.


IPL (Indian Professional League) for cricket has shown that sports can be big business.  Will it be the start of other leagues in other sports? And how will India really build up it’s athletic talent pool to rival other countries? Isn’t this the root of what needs to be accomplished – at the grassroots level?

Until sustainable professional sports leagues are created and start flourishing, it seems like the government has a big role to play in developing sports in India.

What about Government and Sports?

Therefore, one obvious reason for the lack of sports in India could well be that the government has  other priorities.  There is a department, the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, which came into existence in 1982 and became a full Ministry in 2000.

Their budget for the Tenth Five-Year plan which covered 2003-03 to 2007-08 was around $500 million – that’s $100 million per year including what needed to be spent on sports related infrastructure. Hardly enough! Seems like there would not be much left for development and training of young athletes across the country. How many did they really touch?

I reviewed a more recent budget for this department and was pleasantly surprised to see that it had risen quite a bit. It was for the year 2009-10.  The total budget was over $500 million for just the one year.  I was pleasantly surprised, that is, until I looked more closely at the detail and realized that $400 million of that was solely towards expenses related to the Commonwealth Games. And we all know what happened to some of that!

Not surprisingly, I am unable to find numbers related to how much the government of China invests in sports. But, here’s an interesting data point that I somehow unearthed – Frank McCourt, the owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team was recently sent a letter with a rich offer of $1.2 billion to purchase the team. The group making the offer was said to be indirectly financed by the government of China. Hmmmm…

Get Serious

Here’s the thing, if India decides to get serious about advancing sports in the country, they would not have to reinvent the wheel (I’m trying to think positive).  There are many working models to choose from. Take a random country. Australia, for instance – winner of a respectable 46 medals in the last Summer Olympics. Their Australian Sport Commission has this simple yet evocative mission statement – ‘To enrich the lives of all Australians through sport’. And I believe they are succeeding.

[Incidentally, Australia won three cricket world cups before India’s much celebrated win this year. Australia – with a population roughly the same size as that of Mumbai’s metro area.  I’m just sayin…]

So, India, you should simply copy the best of the models already successfully in use and get a head start. Once you decide this is a priority for the country, that is.

The Questions Remain

I don’t have all the answers on this topic. Scratch that. I don’t have any answers regarding Indians and sports. Just a whole bunch of more questions. I truly think the “bottom of the barrel” status of India in sports, while real, is totally baffling. For instance, some of the countries who received more Olympic medals in 2008 than India were: Thailand, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Slovenia, Taiwan…it’s kinda depressing. 

Or let’s take another example.  There is a very good reason why soccer or (non-American) football is the most popular sport in the world. Unlike basketball, tennis, cricket, etc., you don’t need a lot of sports equipment to play. All you  really need is a ball to kick around. Therefore, it’s a sport played widely in even the poorest of countries. So, even those impoverished countries without much sports infrastructure, field competitive soccer teams.  Somehow even North Korea can field a team in the World Cup but India can’t. How come?  [Thanks SRP, for that factoid, and for suggesting this topic thereby making me dig up info while getting increasingly disheartened and perplexed.  Yeah, thanks].

Why, why, why is this the case?

Next would be the question – What can be done about it? And, after that, the key question, Will it?

If you can, please do shed some light on this subject!

Wrapping it up

Finally, to wrap this up – for those of you who are sports fans and are either spatially inclined or love statistics, here’s a fascinating interactive statistical map from NY Times showing medal count by country since the inception of the Olympics. Just click on the image above to see it in action. You can see the geographic view or simply by country ranking.

And try not to get too depressed if you are Indian.

Photos Credits:
Street Cricket: By foxypar4c (http://www.flickr.com/photos/foxypar4/3328898608/) [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Yao Ming: By U.S. Army [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
FIFA World Cup 2010: http://agenciabrasil.ebc.com.br/ultimasfotos?p_p_id=galeria&p_p_lifecycle=0&p_p_state=norma)

Posted on December 3, 2011, in india and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I reckon there maybe two reasons for this dismal show on the world scene by India. First – sport (of any kind) is not encouraged by parents because it can’t surpass the earnings of a ‘doctor’ or an ‘engineer’. Second, and I think more important, is that the GOI is doing little or nothing to encourage the emergence of excellence in sport through investments. And perhaps more important the little investment that the government does make rests under the administration of associations and other sports bodies that are headed by politicians or others with a vested interest, who use (and abuse) these personal fiefdoms, for political gain or just plain corruption.

    Take the example of hockey – we were one of the top countries not too long ago. Now take a look at what is happening now and why. There are two ‘hockey federations’ and they are constantly fighting each other. One is recognized by the world body, the other isn’t and there seems to be no one who is capable of breaking this impasse.

    Football (soccer) is now being encouraged through private sector investment (Relience) – and it will be interesting to see how it develops over the years. Will it take on a life of its own like the IPL, I wonder? There is plenty of money in India through the private sector for investment in sports – looks what’s happening in Formula 1, for example. There is very little or no GOI involvement in this sport. Our guys invest in football teams outside (Venky’s – Tottenham Hotspurs Footbal Club in the UK) but there will be few who will come forward to do this in India just of all the hassles that one will have to go through.

    The saddest part is when sound-minded politicians try to improve the situation, they are roundedly told off. The recent Sports Bill and the ruckus that was created to ensure it was dropped by the Sports Minister’s ‘seniors’ in cabinet says it all. What were the two sticking points: the age limit (term limits) for persons heading sports bodies, and sports bodies being brought under the RTI remit…

    By the way can you name any sports body that is headed by a former sportman (in the same game / field?

    • Thanks for the insights! I would have liked it even better if you had disagreed with my observations.
      Instead, you validated them. 😦

      I hope things improve. There’s just too much wasted potential in India!


  2. India also does not excel in competitive international exams as well – take the Maths, Physics and Computer/IT international Olympiads and again you will not see a single Indian champion. Indians are good at being arrogant and thinking they are number one when they invented the zero, they actually are zero. They do not produce any world class products of quality and have not innovated over the millenniums. Seriously, if anything they are world class is producing world class trumpets as in blowing trumpets

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