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Is India's lack of Olympic gold 'mystifying' or are we thinking about global sporting success all wrong?

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Emma Mckeon, Brittany Elmslie, Bronte Campbell and Cate Campbell after winning the Women's 4 x 100m Freestyle Relay at the 2016 Olympic Games.(Getty Images: Odd Andersen/AFP)


Just what makes a country a global sporting success?

Is it Olympic medals? Winning the FIFA World Cup? Is the answer instead in a strong domestic competition — even if it's a sport virtually no-one else in the world plays?

Or is all this chasing glory distracting us from where our money should really be spent?

Let's look at India.

It has a population of more than 1.3 billion, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and more than 100 billionaires.

But at the last Summer Olympics it won just one silver and one bronze. It's only won two gold medals in the last 50 years.

Australia won 29 medals at the last Games. Aussies have picked up 96 gold in the last 50 years.

The two countries have in common a colonial past and dominate in cricket. Both have massively popular domestic competitions in sports few other countries play — in Australia, AFL. In India, kabaddi — but more on that later.

India's Virat Kohli yells in celebration as in the foreground Aaron Finch walks away.

India and Australia share success in cricket.(Getty: Darrian Traynor/Cricket Australia)

The post-colonial hangover

Simon Chadwick, the director of Eurasian sport at business school emlyon, says given how increasingly powerful and outward looking India is, its Olympic record is puzzling.

"I'm often left mystified by India's relative lack of success in global sport," he tells ABC RN's Sporty.

"In terms of population size alone, that's a very poor Olympic medal return."

He argues while the country could be a major player, it's too inwardly focused.

Bangalore-based sports journalist Sharda Ugra says India's lack of success at the Olympics hurts.

"For a long time, Indians were very apologetic about what we were — they had self-esteem issues, let's say. It's a post-colonial hangover," she says.

"Once the Indian economy opened up in the 1990s that changed public perception of themselves, but you want to see that represented at a global level."

Indian Olympian Pusarla V. Sindhu kisses her silver medal.

India's Pusarla V. Sindhu won a silver medal in women's singles badminton match at the Rio Olympics in 2016.(Getty: Goh Chai Hin/AFP)

She says poorly managed sports governance in India is largely to blame — the exception being the juggernauts of cricket's India Premier League (IPL) and the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL).

But she says people are finding pride and self-confidence in those massively successful local competitions.

"Maybe there's a generational shift in the kind of sports watchers and participants, that there are spectators and people who invest money in Indian sport," she says.

"Maybe there is a change, that they are now far more confident about saying 'It's OK'."


Matthew Nicholson heads the Centre for Sport and Social Impact at La Trobe University.

He says Australia's focus on domestic sports that are either Commonwealth only (cricket and netball) or unique to Australia (AFL) hasn't hurt our international performance too much.

"There were a series of events in Australia's history that perhaps allowed us to capitalise on our sports performance and punch well above our weight."

He says the poor performance at the 1976 Montreal Olympics — which lead to the creation of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) — spurred the country into action.

"Had we have perhaps not had that failure, then maybe we would have just gone along, and not participated in international sporting landscape in the way that we have. The 2000 Olympics were clearly the crowning glory."

What is India's kabaddi?
In the game — described as a mix between tag and wrestling — a team of seven sends one of their players (the raider) into the other team's side of the court to tag other players and make it back to their side without getting trapped.

A kabaddi player wearing red leaps over a competitor as other players and an arena crowd watch on.

The Pro Kabaddi League has leapfrogged other codes to earn a following second only to cricket.(Getty: Sam Panthaky/AFP)

The raider does this while chanting "kabaddi" — they're not allowed to take another breath while on their opponents' side.

There's a lot of strategy and agility, tackling and dodging.

Ugra says the creation of the PKL has shaken off the sport's "yokel image" — it's now India's second most popular competition, behind cricket's IPL.



"It has just thrown everything else off the chart," she says.

"Literally that was created out of just a television broadcaster and an entrepreneur who saw the potential and the simplicity of kabaddi — how easy it was to understand and how easy it was to televise."

Ugra says the sport, which underwent some rule tweaks to better suit TV, now has a broadcast package more expensive than the country's football league.

Chadwick says kabaddi is India's "best kept secret".

"I think kabaddi over the next five to 10 years is going to be really interesting to observe," he says.

"Internationally and globally Indian influence in the global sporting environment I think may well rest upon the success of kabaddi.

"Huge amounts of money are now being invested into kabaddi and there are some interesting developments around TV rights for example."

Win at what cost?
Statues outside the Australian Institute of Sport

Funding both elite sport through the AIS and programs to encourage physical activity is a balancing act, Nicholoson says.(ABC News)

Chadwick says while other countries may win more Olympic medals, it comes at a cost

"There's no rule out there in the world that every country has to be globally successful at sport," he says.

"Within Scandinavian countries governments are much more focused on health and lifestyle and the participation of their populations in sport.

"You may not have those kind of big Norwegian sports stars that you would normally associate with say, the United States, what you do have is a very fit very active population."

He says the UK's government has created a sports system that's essentially a medals factory — only the US won more gold at the Rio games.

But that "win at all costs mentality" is creating some serious issues.

"A lot of professional athletes are coming out and say, hey, there's a bullying culture, there's a culture of discrimination."


Nicholson says Australia's struggled to strike the balance between striving for international success and promoting physical activity.

"We have aimed for Olympic success, and world championship success, perhaps at the expense of participation and the expense of the general health of the population."

He says elite sport policy and the AIS have had essentially unchallenged bipartisan political support for 40 years, whereas participation policies are at the mercy of election cycles and can change every three years.

"Australia has struggled to balance that priority and has a childhood obesity problem and an adult obesity and overweight problem as a result of not quite being in the Norway or Scandinavian camp," he says.

"The peak being, the 2000 Olympics, really trying to focus on trying to get soft power outcomes through its events and its sporting successes."

Kim Brennan smiles as people wave flags to welcome the team.

Channelling sporting success into 'soft power' outcomes is a strategy used by many countries, Chadwick says.(ABC: Jennifer Browning)

Chadwick says that's a game he's increasingly seeing nations playing — using sport to exercise soft power.

"Hard power is very much about conflict and intervention. Soft power is about using the power of attraction to engage different audiences around the world."

He says Qatar is one country trying to turn sporting success into nation building, trying to use it's FIFA World Cup to build "brand Qatar".

"I think it's very important to see sport not just as: we're kicking a ball or we're throwing a discus or we're hitting a six," he says.

"It's about money, it's about politics and it's about influence around the world."


 

FairAndUnbiased

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Indians are not well known for bodybuilding, weightlifting, MMA, gymnastics, basketball or other feats of physical strength.

Meanwhile some of the strongest people in the world are Chinese.
 

KurtisBrian

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well if gold medals are an indication of a nations power and influence then China would be roughly equal to Australia, Sweden and Hungary. Pfft.
 

cloud4000

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Aside from cricket, what sports are Indians good at? Let’s be honest, Indians don’t have a good culture for sports. You would think a country with over one billion people would be able to compete competitively in international events but, alas, this is not so.

And this is a country with a sports ministry. God knows what theydo there except to park babus and shuffle papers.


Indians are not well known for bodybuilding, weightlifting, MMA, gymnastics, basketball or other feats of physical strength.

Meanwhile some of the strongest people in the world are Chinese.
That is because China made substantial investments in its sports infrastructure, something India never did. Whether from public or private sources, India needs to spend billions to up its image in sports.
 

beijingwalker

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well if gold medals are an indication of a nations power and influence then China would be roughly equal to Australia, Sweden and Hungary. Pfft.
China is almost always on top 3, in 2008 , China topped gold medal list by a big margin.

The 2008 Summer Olympic Games


The 2004 Summer Olympic Games


The 2012 Summer Olympic Games


The 2012 Summer Olympic Games
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beijingwalker

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China joined Olympics pretty late in the hisotry, first Olympic debut was in 1984, Los Angeles Olympics. As a very late comer, China is catching up pretty fast.
 

masterchief_mirza

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"For a long time, Indians were very apologetic about what we were — they had self-esteem issues, let's say. It's a post-colonial hangover," she says.
It's not a post-colonial issue Shardra, it's a post Muslim domination issue. But you have the general idea right. The inferiority complex is perpetual and a fossilised element of indian culture.
 

masterchief_mirza

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Indians are not well known for bodybuilding, weightlifting, MMA, gymnastics, basketball or other feats of physical strength.

Meanwhile some of the strongest people in the world are Chinese.
If we're being fair, Indian women competitors are decent at such power events. Not sure of their actual record - better than their men for sure.
 

beijingwalker

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Meanwhile some of the strongest people in the world are Chinese.
Every Olympic games, weight lifting is China's greatest strength.

 

KurtisBrian

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China is almost always on top 3, in 2008 , China topped gold medal list by a big margin.
Good for the Chinese in 2008. Home field is a huge advantage though.

looking at total gold medals.
What I am trying to say is that gold medals don't make a country important or powerful. China is certainly more far more vital, influential, powerful and important than any single nation that total Chinese golds group it with. Those other nations gain importance because they work in gangs.

India has 9 gold. Is India less signifiant, powerful, important than Jamaica and Kenya?
 

beijingwalker

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Good for the Chinese in 2008. Home field is a huge advantage though.

looking at total gold medals.
What I am trying to say is that gold medals don't make a country important or powerful. China is certainly more far more vital, influential, powerful and important than any single nation that total Chinese golds group it with. Those other nations gain importance because they work in gangs.

India has 9 gold. Is India less signifiant, powerful, important than Jamaica and Kenya?
I never said gold medals mean a country's overal national strength, I was just pointing out that you suggested in sports China is oughly equal to Australia, Sweden and Hungary is very wrong.
 

Bagheera

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are you one of those indians too ?

more then half kashmir is already separated from india . wake up
Anything that happened till 1949 or 1950 doesn't count. The South Asian countries were newly independent. They were under the influence of the departing ex-colonizers. Many agents of foreign countries held crucial positions in the newly established governments. Early policies, decisions and actions attributed to the newly born nations were actually dictated by British or Soviets.

- PRTP GWD
 

letsrock

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China joined Olympics pretty late in the hisotry, first Olympic debut was in 1984, Los Angeles Olympics. As a very late comer, China is catching up pretty fast.
WHy is china still so bad in team sports ? it will do a lot for their image if they are champs in soccer, hockey, cricket etc.
 

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