Sports Agony

Friday, August 29, 2008

While the nation celebrates its best-ever performance at the Olympics, it’s time perhaps to take a cold shower of reality to put the achievement in perspective. India’s medal haul of three at Beijing still places us among the spectacular underachievers at the Games. If a study published just before the Beijing Games is any pointer, India’s size and social indicators suggest that the ‘‘ideal’’ medal count of the country, Games after Games, should have been higher than what we have achieved. Consider this: If population alone is taken as an indicator of sporting success, India should have ended up with 160 medals, second only to China, which ought to have bagged 187. However, in their paper published in the Economic and Political Weekly, economists Anirudh Krishna and Eric Haglund argue that it’s not just population but the ‘‘effective participants’’ in a country that determines its medal haul. Effective participants are the number of people who are in a position to take part in sporting activities — assuming that potential Olympic achievers are randomly distributed in the population of every country. This excludes a large number of poor and marginalized Indians from the race. Krishna and Hugland first drew up a model predicting the medal tally at the 2004 Olympics, factoring in the per capita GDP of each country along with the population. It predicted 19 medals for India. The authors then fine-tuned the model by adding other factors — health, education and access to public information — all indicators in which India’s comparative scores is poor. The last variable, access to public information, was measured in terms of number of radio sets per 1,000 people. This model considered the 1996 Olympics because later data wasn’t available for all countries under study. The predictions improved vastly. For instance, while the first model had predicted just 30 medals for USA, the score in the second model was 81 — much closer to the US’ actual tally of 101. This model still predicted 14 medals for India whereas Leander Peas bronze was the lone success in those Games. Krishna, who teaches at the Stanford Institute of Public Policy of Duke University in Durham, US, told TOI through email that though the model could be made more accurate by adding more variables, the bottomline of India’s underachievement could not be wished away. ‘‘While different structural variables — such as GNP, infrastructure, literacy, radios etc — certainly matter, what also matters is the use that one makes of these features,’’ he said. ‘‘Countries where different (public and private) organisations exist which actively promote wide participation and nurture talent, are the ones that tend to overperform. They win medals beyond what their structural characteristics would suggest. Others, such as India, where public and private organisations are weak in nearly all sports, tend to perform considerably below their potential,’’ Krishna noted. The import is clear. While the structural variables for India are poor, these alone don’t explain why our medals cupboard is so bare. What it shows is that we have consistently been unable to make use of our available infrastructure for nurturing talent that could translate into a better record at the Olympics. HITTING BULLSEYE Move over astrology. Economists are better at predicting the Olympic medal haul of various nations. Nothing can be better proof of this than the model developed by

Daniel Johnson and Ayfer Ali of Colorado College, USA. The economists got 93% accuracy in predicting the total medals won by countries at Beijing and got their gold medal forecasts 92% right. All this, without taking into account any information on the quality of the athletes or their training programmes. The Johnson and Ali model simply studies five variables — population of the country, its per capita income, climate, political structure (along with nation-specific effects) and host advantage. Here are the predicted and actual results from the Beijing Games:


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