Sunday, August 5, 2012

Olympic medal count: What's it mean for developing nations?

Going for the medal count (AP)

China and the USA are hitting, splashing, bashing, lunging for Olympic medals in London like there's no tomorrow. My eyes bulged a moment ago checking the stats to see China on top of the collection list. This is after listening to a recent podcast on This American Life about how most Chinese do not feel that China is an up and coming superpower. Well, maybe they don't feel like it, but they are certainly acting like super somethings.

My cousin got me into looking at the medal stats a few days ago as he regularly checks them on his cell phone. I was taken aback when he showed me the top 5 (i.e. USA, China, UK, S Korea and France). Two questions popped to mind: (1) What ever happened to China's burly communist Olympic dance partner, a.k.a. Russia? and (2) S Korea? How did that tiny self-conscious Asian country squeeze its way to the K-top?* The UK's Telegraph summarizes S Korea's history in six words: Quiet. Along came technology. Scary neighbour. Scary is right, as they just made a historic win against the UK in soccer.

Medal count as of August 5, 2012 (Source: Google)

However as I thought about it more, I started to focus on the difference between China and India at the Olympics. Both are emerging economies. Both have populations over a billion. However, China is an Olympic superstar while India is basically absent. Who are a billion people supposed to root for? India just lost against S Korea in their own national sport locking them into the bottom quarter of field hockey ranks. India has been able to garner two medals so far in their shining event of last Olympics, shooting, but has just suffered a significant loss, and as of yet... no gold.

Academic economists, Cowen and Kevin, shed some light on this issue. Though population is a major factor in collecting Olympic medals, there are other elements at play. Firstly along with military prowess, China's investment into the Olympics has been part of their national strategy since the Cold War. As a communist country, the government could invest lavishly. This is opposed to India's vibrant, dynamic (and... wildly inefficient) democracy. For most in India, other than cricket, athletics are mostly a hobby. It would blow the mind of most people to see how much money and media coverage is invested into football and basketball at the high school level in the USA. Too bad cricket is not an Olympic sport. Imagine Sachin winning gold?

Another major factor against India is the issue of child malnutrition. Recently, India lowered in rank on the Child Development Index. Stronger children equals stronger young athletes. But as China's population ages, this may give room for India's young population (about a third under twenty) to do some needed catch up. But what would it take? A lot.

First of all, should India focus more on garnering Olympic medals? How important is London's medal count for each nation? Isn't it more of an image thing? For India and other developing nations, there's a bit of a catch to it. Should a nation spend money on the Olympics when its Child Development Index is falling?

2012 Olympic shooter, Vijay Kumar, winning a silver for India (Source: Times of India)

Well, if the sappy commercials are to be believed, then the Olympics are more than just showing off to other nations, but actually they're also about showing off to ourselves. Why do we root for an athlete that we've never even heard of until this summer? Because that person somehow represents us. If she or he makes it, we make it. And we prove it to ourselves that we can do it. Whatever it is.

I guess that's why this whole India medal thing bothers me. Part of me gets lost in the count.


* Note: Being Asian-American myself, I was always told we're not supposed to be good at sports. I guess it's another lesson on how not to listen to the lies that society tells us. 

Should developing countries like China and India spend more money on the Olympics? Why or why not?

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