One of my more interesting pastimes these days is to read posts on the Asia
Times Online forums,  which offer stunning entertainment value as well as
fodder for contemplation.
The Beijing Summer Olympic Games that open on Friday have sparked substantive
debate about the quality and quantity of winners, with the all-important gold
medal tally by country being the most contentious aspect of recent discussions.
Winning an impressive tally of gold medals appears to be a matter of national,
ethnic, moral and perhaps even religious pride.
Many posters have opined that China will win more medals than the United
States, for the first time, and in so doing push the demographically-challenged
nations of Europe and Japan deeper
into their death spiral as these countries mark their exit from the world
stage. Equal fervor is expended on these forums on the pathetic record of
India, a subject I touch on later in this article.
For people like me whose idea of exercise is to carry a six-pack of beer from
the kitchen to the living room television viewing station - fancy name for a
chair with a convenient beer stand - the questions about success in sport come
in two particular forms: firstly, the one about the sheer hard work needed for
these athletes to excel: that is, what motivates these amazing youngsters to
the standards of excellence seen in sports. What force, rational or irrational,
guides a 10-year-old to practice running 32 kilometers or more every day to
shave that elusive last minute or last second from the time it takes to do
their marathon or 100 meter sprint?
Then there is the question of innate talent, which is where the aspects of
national, ethnic and religious pride come into the picture as the concept of
bred superiority explains a large part of this genetic makeup that provides
specific advantages. This one is relatively easy, harking as it does back to
evolutionary forces that help adapt the human body to its environment.
Essentially, this evolution of sporting abilities can be explained in much the
same way that people in Europe are tall and pale, while those in equatorial
Africa are shorter and darker.
Thus, athletes from the plains of Africa come from a stock of people who need
to run long distances for gathering the essentials of their survival, be it for
hunting meat or collecting water. Similar muscle growth isn't required for a
bunch of farmers who benefit from readily available water for their
agriculture: these people though need greater upper body strength than the
aforementioned Africans as their existence depends on extracting every last
calorie from the land.
All of the above though is in effect inconsequential to a globalizing world.
The famed athletes of Africa have passed their genes to today's
African-Americans, who face challenges quite different from those of their
forefathers. They don't have to do anything more self-exerting than stand in
the queue of their local fast food restaurant for their daily calorie needs;
however to do better they have to choose careers that offer enough upside.
Herein the challenges of navigating the biases of corporate America forced many
an African-American to turn to sports as success on a level playing field did
more to combat ingrained racism than any other single factor. In turn,
competing against genetically-blessed athletes forced the less naturally gifted
athletes of America to either turn to less demanding sports or adapt their
The US is truly a microcosm of this evolution, as the relative openness in the
selection process combined with the lure of endorsement riches for successful
athletes provides a strong pipeline of talent. Immigrants bring their special
genetically acquired skill set to the land of the free, in turn broadening the
scope of gaining medals. That is why the US has dominated various sport
Russia and China
On the other end of the scale are the two countries that vied for second and
third place in the Athens Olympics in 2004, Russia and China. Superficially at
least, there are major similarities between the two countries in contrast to
the current leader: three in particular stand out. Firstly, the common genetic
heritage of Russian and Chinese athletes across various disciplines stands in
sharp contrast to the diverse crowd of Americans; secondly, the centralized
top-down approach to managing athletes that in turn harked back to communist
days again in contrast to the flat organization structure of the US Olympic
team. And thirdly, the humility and team-orientation of the Russians and
Chinese in contrast to the more bombastic and individualistic American
The first factor is almost entirely mythical - the genetic makeup of the
Russian and Chinese teams is distinctly not from the dominant races of those
countries as both countries realized the need to broaden their talent pool
early on by incorporating people with specific skill sets for specific medal
That is why we could see distinct similarities between the Russian and Chinese
archery teams in the past two Olympic events, as both countries relied on
people from their border with Mongolia.
That neatly dovetails to the next point: the scale of involvement by government
bodies. Winning medals in Olympic events was always important for communist
governments, ever since Adolf Hitler made a big deal of highlighting "Aryan
superiority" in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Joseph Stalin took it to heart and so
did the authorities of all European communist countries, in what must be one of
the most widespread cases of victims acquiring the habits of their oppressors.
China has followed in these traditions, although with a different purpose.
Communists in China needed success in sports to highlight the people's ability
to adapt to outside forces, that is, those of the market; and also for
enhancing the pride of Chinese people globally. The latter move has been shrewd
in particular, helping to attract support for the Chinese team in all countries
where Chinese emigres occupy prominent positions in commerce and trade,
including the US and Europe.
The reason for the communists to want sporting success is indelibly associated
with their own lack of political legitimacy. Puffing up national pride from
such victories is a sure-fire way of diverting criticism of the center: in
other words, the logic of "this government prepares world-class athletes, so
don't blame us for bread shortages but look instead at the incompetence of your
local officials". All of this is part of the game played by communist
governments on their people by creating a perverse system that depends on
socializing successes in the world of sport and personalizing failures in all
Communist governments, and most notably those running East Germany, crossed
many lines of accepted medical practice in engineering a new class of athletes
to be faster and stronger; the effects of which were only felt by the
individual athletes long after they had passed from the public eye.
In sports such as gymnastics, where performance-enhancing drugs couldn't
possibly provide any advantages, the regimen was replaced with a brutal one of
whittling down thousands of children to a handful of champions by controlling
every minute of their existence. Those who broke their bones or their spirits
weren't heard of again, this human tragedy wasn't uncovered until well after
the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
It is, however, the last of the three factors mentioned above that truly
identifies the differences: Americans look to the opportunities presented by
success, while both Russian and Chinese athletes appear to fear the downside
associated with failure.
While American athletes inevitably come from family environments, those from
Russia and China have far less connection with their own families, having been
adopted by the state. Put more crudely, American athletes are driven by greed
while those from Russia and China were driven by fear.
The operative word in the last sentence is "were" - I believe that in the case
of Russia at least, its athletes have much more to look forward to rather than
fear, as economic strength has created substantial opportunities for individual
achievements to be rewarded. It would be the same for China, but for the simple
fact that being at home can provide substantially higher pressure for its
athletes which they wouldn't feel again for a long time.
What about India?
By far the most vexing question is the one that concerns the utter failure of
India to garner any individual athletic gold medals in the Olympics, with
success only coming in field hockey, and that too only until about 25 years
ago. How can a nation of a billion people that prides itself as a budding
economic power have produced no global champions at all?
The forums referred to in the first paragraph provide some answers, which can
be categorized broadly as follows:
Indians genetically lack the ability for athletic success: the "inferiority"
Corruption and incompetence on the part of the government.
Lack of individual incentives.
The second point is certainly the most frequented cited by ethnic Indians to
explain the gargantuan failure. From what I can understand, the bureaucratic
nature of the sports authorities combined with their utter lack of
accountability and massive corruption all combined to destroy the selection and
training process for Indian athletes.
They pointed to the spectacle of the Indian hockey team that failed to qualify
for the Olympics this year, even as its top officials were arraigned for
corruption. Given the democratic nature of the Indian government and its
famously open media, I am at a loss to understand how this situation has
persisted - as Indians claim - for the past 50 years. This is clearly a matter
that requires greater reform than most other areas in which the Indian
government is involved.
I spent some time with Indian sports journalists recently, and consider the
first angle quite meaningless. While it is true that the agrarian nature of the
Indian sub-continent as well as weather patterns offer significant challenges
to creating global winners in, say, long-distance running, it hasn't really
limited the athleticism of one group of Indians at least.
As one writer pointed out, Indians do excel in games like cricket, where the
necessary skills are broadly comparable to the best athletic requirements
globally. For example, the upper body strength required for bowling in cricket
is comparable to that required for field athletic events such as shot putt and
throwing the javelin and discus. Similarly, the dexterity and stamina needed
for batting is quite easily portable to many other Olympic events, including
the all-important athletic events.
If genetics do not offer any evidence of poor performance for Indians, what
does? My view is that simple economics does. Indian cricketers are among the
highest paid athletes in the world, a category that includes professional
baseball players in the US to football (soccer) players in Europe. The contrast
between this fabulous wealth and the rough-and-ready existence of hundreds of
millions of people has perhaps created a lopsided incentive structure that
pushes sportsmen to either become cricketers or choose less risky careers in
the world of banking or information technology.
The country's best athletes would rather be second-rate cricketers than
first-rate runners or javelin-throwers because of the skewed nature of sports
funding and branding in India. The dominance of one sport has thus helped to
elbow out the talent in most other fields.
That situation is bound to change. As the economy continues to expand - despite
the best efforts of the government to derail it - Indians will broaden their
interests. In so doing, they will change the incentive structure of sports in
India. When that happens, sporting success will follow as surely as it did for
countries such as the US.
1. To view the Asia Times Online forums, click here.