New Delhi: As the stadiums empty and the athletes return, India can reflect proudly on a memorable Asian Games. Headlines scream of a record haul in Jakarta but these headlines can be deceptive (chart 1a). India did perform admirably in some fields (athletics alone brought home 19 medals) but on an aggregate, the performance was in line with past games (charts 1a and 1b).
Absolute medal tally comparisons across Asian Games are distorted by the dynamic nature of the games. As we highlighted on these pages last week, the Asian Games have expanded rapidly over the last two decades, bringing new events and new medal opportunities. This year’s 26 new events have ranged from the eclectic to the controversial and boosted medal tallies across the board. Pencak Silat, a niche Indonesian martial art, provided the hosts with 14 golds, while the cards game Bridge contributed to India’s gold haul through a victory in the men’s pair for Pranab Bardhan and Shibhnath Sarkar.
In this setting then, a better barometer for performance is medal share—the proportion of medals won out of the total possible medal haul. On this front, India has made little progress. This edition only saw a marginal increase in medals secured—4.4% of the total pool, a marginal increase from 2014 (3.9%) and in line with India’s average performance in the games (chart 1b). Limiting the analysis to just golds, the 2018 figure is even lower at 3% (which is also the historical average share of gold medals won). Since the first Asiad, India has won 4% of all medals on offer, significantly behind China, South Korea and Japan. The three East Asian countries are Asia’s sporting leaders— accounting for more than half (56%) of all medals ever won at the Asian Games. On the medal share measure, India’s greatest ever performance was not 2018 but the Asian Games in 1951. The inaugural Asiad saw only eight nations participate. In the absence of two of the three East Asian giants (South Korea and China), India won 30% medals and has never come close since.
What accounts for India’s underperformance?
Research has shown that sporting success is driven by both population and wealth. A 2008 study of Olympic performance between 1952 and 2004 shows that GDP (gross domestic product) per capita and population are the two most important determinants of Olympic success.
Larger populations mean larger talent pools to select prospective winners from. In theory, India’s size should generate more winners.
However, after adjusting for population, India only won 0.05 medals per million people in the 2018 Asian Games; only 12 countries (of the 46 participating), which include all of India’s South Asian neighbours, fared worse.
More than just population, wealth matters. In these Asian Games, countries with higher GDP-per-capita, such as Qatar and Singapore, had better medals to population ratios than poorer countries, such as India and Indonesia (chart 2).
The most tangible manifestation of wealth’s impact is on the ability to spend on sports. In their book, Successful Elite Sport Policies, Veerle de Bosscher and co-authors analyse the performance of 15 successful sporting nations to highlight nine pillars for sporting triumph. They find that while there is no generic policy blueprint, there is a strong positive relationship between money spent on sports development and success.
In India, sports spending has increased over the years but remains low. This year, the government of India has earmarked ₹2,196 crore for the sports ministry, a 13% year-on-year increase and nearly double the amount allocated in 2014-15, but still only 0.01% of the GDP. To put it in perspective, the entire sports ministry budget for 2018-19 is in the same range as the profit the Board of Control for Cricket in India, which operates independently, made in 2015-16 (₹1,715 crore). In contrast, the South Korean sports ministry spent $1.15 billion (and 0.08% of GDP) just in 2014-15. Big spending sports countries also source their funds from a range of sources: China, Japan and South Korea all use a public lottery to help raise funds for sports investments.
However, spending alone is no guarantee for victories. In China, Japan and South Korea, investment is combined with meticulous planning. Governance reforms, better coaching and more grassroots participation are all important, and much needed for India. But all this will require attention and, ultimately, funding. Only that can give India a sporting chance for genuine, sustained sporting glory.