Population and Olympic Success: Rajdeep Sardesai has got it wrong

Had posted it as a facebook note recently. Apologies for cross posting but I believe in increasing the worth of not just MZ but also WP 

Rajdeep Sardesai recently wrote a rather provocative but unremarkable piece on Olympics and India. One excerpt being cited by the website itself : ”

While the world soaks in the Olympic spirit, India’s role has been that of the enthusiastic spectator on the margins. Eight Olympic gold medals in hockey reflect a sepia-tinted nostalgia for another era. Four bronze, one silver and one gold in individual sport represent a pitiful tally for a billion-plus country. Why even tiny Jamaica, with a population equal to a Mumbai suburb, has claimed 55 Olympic medals since its independence in 1962.”

The argument is problematic. If India was indeed a country with the population of a Mumbai Suburb, we perhaps indeed would have been winning a medal or two every edition just as Jamica does. The billion plus unfortunately on this front is not (yet) a strength but a problem, more so because we are a true democracy.

The larger point, journalism schools need to offer classes on causal inference.


Author: harshT

Assistant Professor

4 thoughts on “Population and Olympic Success: Rajdeep Sardesai has got it wrong”

  1. A second point is that if you look at China’s success, it is more than just heavy investment by an authoritarian regime – it is very carefully targeted investment. In 2008, the USA won golds in soccer, basketball, and volleyball. China won more golds in just diving.

    Nate Silver, the NYT’s psephologist has calculated the Return on Investment from different sports and found that the lowest is for hockey. India trained up to 30 very talented men for months at expensive facilities, and got only one medal per olympics for nine years. Abhinav Bindra just needed a shooting range, and his own skill to get one more. Interestingly, the sports with the highest RoI are boxing and weightlifting, according to his study – both of which India has improved a lot in. Maybe this is a smart move.

  2. Harsh, a study by Andrew Bernard of Dartmouth suggests that 4 factors explain 96% of the distribution of Olympic medals. These factors are – population, income, host country status, and number of medals won in previous Olympics. Other models have found that adding a control for authoritarian regimes, and a control for the existence of “sporting culture” (countries like Australia, Jamaica, and Norway have this), can very accurately predict the total.

  3. Democracy = Problem in winning medals – Hypotheses is not very clear to me. A lot other democracies win many more medals. Agreed that China, Russia are able to move much faster – when a decision has been taken from the top but I think it’s been 60 years since Independence now for India.. surely Democracy alone can’t be the reason of our failure.

    1. Well Himanshu I agree the Hypothesis could be stated better. Replace democracy by_” A poor struggling democracy”.
      All the other democracies that do really well in the Olympics are much richer than India ( US, UK, Germany, France). The other medal winners are China, Russia ( rest of Soviet), Cuba (earlier in boxing). Even Brazil which does marginally better, has crossed a certain threshold of being developed that we are not.
      And why should we focus on sports. Let me run a fabulous sport program and win 100 medals. I will get only 500 votes!
      Rajdeep mentioned Jamica – per capita GDP and GNI at least thrice that of India.
      So population is a resource only when the development of a country goes past a certain threshold. And this relationship will hold much better for democracies. ( think of it currently in India only the very rich or very poor take to sport, by and large)

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