Let me begin with a confession. I have spent the better part of the last two weeks with my eyes glued to the TV screen and my buttocks glued to the couch. It's an irony that the Olympics which embody the zenith of physical activity have turned me into a couch potato. Thanks to the non-stop coverage on 4 different channels, and my newly acquired toy, the HD-recording TataSky setbox, I have been able to record the Games on two different channels, while simultaneously watching an earlier recording on a third channel. And thanks to watching only recorded versions, I have been able to fast forward the deeply regressive and offensive Hero motorcycle commercials (the ones where the women are called 'chidiyas') and the annoying Tata docomo ads (to be fair to them, even the best ad when repeated a zillion times can be annoying).
As the games progressed, it became quite clear that India was not going to drastically improve its performance over the previous years, and before you pounce on me and point out that we have doubled our medal haul, let me remind you that its a double of three. It's the same 'low-base' effect that affect most of our national calculations, including economic growth. Six medals for a large nation is a pathetic showing by any standard, and here I am not even getting into our exact population, since I understand that that is not entirely fair given the circumstances in which a large number of people live. Having said that, I have the deepest respect and admiration for all the medal winners and all the other athletes who fought valiantly on the international stage. A special mention must be made of OGQ (Olympic Gold Quest), and their efforts. I have met Viren Resquniha and the dedication he and his team have is amazing.
So, to get back to the original question of our perennial poor performance, let me try and answer it with a little bit of science and a lot of my own thoughts, for whatever they are worth. Let me preface it with the disclaimer that at the end of all my thoughts, you may be more confused than when you started.
The Nature Vs Nurture Debate:
In a lot of human endeavour and human health, scientists have forever tried to answer the question of how much of what happens to us is due to genes, versus the environment. There is no doubt that there are genetic factors at play which influence sporting performance. The most stark examples of that are the Jamaicans and the East Africans. Jamaica has a population of 2.8 million people (about one fifth of Mumbai- sorry, I could not resist that), and has had a monopoly on both the men and women's short sprint distances, over the recent past, and East Africans have had that same monopoly over middle and long distance running. Our muscles are divided into three different fiber types; 1, 2a and 2b. Type 1 are also called slow twitch muscle fibers, and as the name implies they are designed for distance rather than speed. Type 2 are fast twitch muscle fibers, of which type 2 b are essential for explosive speed, the kind needed to ace the short distance sprints. The percentage of fiber types is largely genetic, and world-class sprinters are born with a large amount of type 2 b muscle fibers. It would be scientifically accurate to say that if you did not have a significant amount of these, there is no way you could be a world class sprinter. Clearly the Jamaicans have an abundance of these, though they were 'discovered' only recently. I think it was Merlene Ottey, the great woman sprinter who threw open the doors of possibility in the 1984 Olympics (incidentally, Merlene is still competing at the international level, at the unbelievable age of 52, but for the Czech Republic now). Ever since the floodgates have been opened, the Jamaicans have dominated. Similarly the East Africans have dominated long distance running, over the past few decades, and they are blessed with an abundance of Type 1 muscle fibers which are fatigue resistant and allow them to glide like gazelles over long distances. The Jamaican and East Africans have been 'discovered', but there are several other parts of the world, which are just discovering their potential, such as The Bahamas in sprinting, and Uganda in distance running.
Both long and short distance running, as well as several track and field events at the Games require a large amount of 'genetic gift'. But, most of the other events at the Olympics don't. You don't need to be born talented to excel at fencing, or badminton, or table tennis, or synchronized swimming. Yes, talent will help, but will not be the deciding factor in success, unlike the sprint events. The point I am trying to make is two-fold.
1. Genetic talent or the nature part of the nature vs nurture argument, cannot justify our poor showing at the Olympics, since very few sports are heavily dependent on raw genetic talent.
2. India is a very vast country, consisting of varied ethnic groups. I am sure a dedicated search will unearth several groups who have the right muscle fiber structure needed for track and field events. One group that comes to mind are the folk who live in the high mountains, and have a superior ability to utilize oxygen and therefore perform well in long distance events.
The 'lack of interest' debate:
Culturally, I do not think that sport has ever been a priority for Indians. A recent worldwide study showed that Indians are a relatively active group, compared to several other countries, though I doubt that. My feeling is that this included the country as a whole, and as we know a large part of the country is under-served by road and mechanized transportation, making physical activity necessary for survival, as opposed to something done voluntarily for health benefits. Besides cricket we really don't give a damn about sports, and even in cricket our performance is at best lukewarm, considering that our population is more than all the cricket playing nations put together. We have always viewed sports as something that children do in school, and that too for a limited period of time, so that their academic prowess is not marred. In whichever city you live in, look around at the scores of billboards advertising 'coaching classes', and think about when was the last time you saw a hoarding which promised to make your child the best runner or tennis player. However, in spite of the lack of overall interest, we do know that there are parts of the country, which are crazy about football, such as Bengal and Goa. Put together, their population is far in excess of nations which excel at the game, but still we feature nowhere. I really don't have a convincing explanation for that.
The killer instinct:
There is a theory that we are good at sport, but lack the 'killer instinct' which is necessary for winning at the highest level. In my opinion, there is some truth to that. Take tennis for instance; over the last few decades we have had some fabulously talented players, but the one who made it to the top was Leander Paes. In pure strokeplay, Leander was clearly not the best of his generation (and I have had the good fortune of having played with most of them), but what set him apart was his strong mental strength. His lack of strokes was made up by agility of mind and foot, and I am willing to gamble that had he the strokes to match, he would certainly have been in the top ten in the world in singles. As a nation we seem to have taken that old saying to heart, 'its not the winning that counts, but the taking part'. This seems to reflect clearly in our approach. If you heard the commentary or read the news articles, it was apparent that we thought that being in the quarterfinals or semis was 'good enough' and we were not expected to ever challenge the top few seeds, especially in badminton, boxing, or wrestling. Why ? Most of our athletes in those sport were in the top 20 in the world, and therefore should be expected to win at the highest level, rather than have an attitude of 'reaching this far is good enough'. When pitted against the best in the world our media and athletes are satisfied with putting up a good fight, which often means winning a few points. Contrast that with the killer mindset, which has guided American sport in the recent past with the dictum, 'winning is not everything.....its the only thing'.
However, amidst all this gloom, the silver lining is that we have won more medals than ever, and that should spur on a whole new generation to perform better. Mary Kom, Yogeshwar Dutt and others will serve as heroes to the country, especially those in their hometown, who will know that it can be done, and in human endeavour that's often all that is needed for success. Much like the 4 minute mile barrier which stood for decades, but once Sir Roger Bannister broke it, it was broken repeatedly in that same year. Our medal winnners this Olympics will serve as the Bannisters of their generation, or closer home, they will serve as Tenzing Norgay did to a whole generation of Sherpas to reach the highest point in the world. And when they do so, cynics like myself will have to start blogging about why Indians are so great at sport.