India punched well above its weight at London 2012. But the promise of future Olympic dominance is exaggerated.

As an Indian living abroad, I am now used to the quadrennial ritual of having to answer questions as to why a country of India’s size should perennially disappoint at the Olympics. But what if at the just-concluded 2012 games, India – with two silver and four bronze medals – outperformed the likes of the United States, South Korea, Britain, Japan, Germany, Russia, or Australia? In one sense, it did.

Let’s begin with the premise that a country’s performance at the Olympics is tied to three factors: the size of its talent pool; the per capita resources available to ensure the health and well-being of potential athletes; and a sports culture and infrastructure that can develop that talent to internationally competitive standards. These factors are hard to measure, but we can rely upon decent proxies: total population as a measure of available talent, per capita gross domestic product (adjusted for purchasing power) as a measure of human development and individual resources, and the proportion of athletes that are able to qualify for the Olympics from that given population as an indication of the strength of a country’s sports culture and infrastructure. Thus:

which can be boiled down to:

As this formula suggests, the advantages rendered by a large talent pool are not just offset—but are in fact reversed—by the other two considerations. This runs contrary to expectations, but in fact makes sense. The 15 largest countries by population include most of the Games’ notorious underperformers; between them, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Mexico, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Egypt average less than two total medals each for every summer games in which each has participated. Large populations are therefore a drag on sporting performance, and the likes of the United States, China, Japan, and Russia are in fact the exceptions rather than the rule.

Evaluating a country’s Olympic performance can also prove contentious. Should the total number of medals count, or the quality of those medals (gold, silver, or bronze)? To factor in both considerations, I would assign gold medals double the weight of silver medals, which in turn can be considered equal to two bronze medals. When adjusted in this manner, how do countries’ performances at London stack up? Here’s a list of the overachievers, including the factors by which they surpassed expectations in the right-side column:

The appearance on this list of some countries should not surprise given their dominance of a few specific events: Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda (long-distance running), Jamaica (sprints), and Iran (wrestling and weightlifting). Most of the other nations featured – China, Russia, North Korea, Georgia, Moldova, Armenia, Cuba, etc. – are either communist or post-communist countries, where the state has allocated resources specifically for the development of sport. (One particularly noteworthy example is the $785,000 spent annually on Chinese swimming star Sun Yang, over 100 times what the average Chinese citizen earns annually.) But the list also includes a few surprises – notably India and Indonesia. Based on the formula above, India should have been expected to win only one silver medal. (Note: apparent discrepancies are due to rounding and different weights given to gold, silver, and bronze medals. For example, Great Britain still exceeded expectations by winning a large proportion of gold medals despite appearing short on total medals.)

Meanwhile the list of underachievers also includes a number of surprises: Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada.

Austria and Israel – which should have won the equivalent of eleven and four medals respectively given their resource bases and talent, but failed to win a medal of any kind – were the biggest underachievers. Hong Kong, Greece, and Belgium are at the bottom of states that did at least make the medals table.

Amid all the recent commentary on why India underperforms at the Olympics (see also Sharda Ugra’s justified criticism of India’s “Quadrennial Middle Class Mortification” and a glass-half-full antidote by Sadanand Dhume), Fareed Zakaria’s prediction that in 2040 India would feature at the top the medal standings deserves some closer scrutiny. If one were to extend the current trend lines concerning Indian participation at the Olympics to 2040 (when it should be expected to field 129 competitors) and combine it with projections about the size of India’s population and economy, India’s performance should still be expected to improve only marginally from 55th to about 35th place in the medals table.

Even Sports Minister Ajay Maken’s pronouncement that India could win 25 medals by 2020 appears to overstate the case—a linear projection suggests that India will, at best, double its London medal haul by then. In other words, barring serious public or private investment and greater youth participation and better training in medal-rich sports such as track and field, swimming, gymnastics, diving, and cycling, we shouldn’t expect India to match the lofty achievements of the United States and China in the medium-term future.

Olympic Gold Quest, a private initiative led by Geet Sethi and Prakash Padukone represents a small but meaningful step in the right direction – and India has reaped the dividends in a handful of sports, including shooting, boxing, and badminton. Less appreciated, India saw three track and field stars boast top 10 finishes (when it had had none since 1984), and its athletes were serious contenders in a number of events in shooting and boxing even when they failed to medal. So the future is indeed bright. But much like India’s rise, it would be best to temper expectations without becoming unduly despondent about the prospects of long-term success.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.