Monday, August 13, 2012

Why is India's Olympic Output so Dismal? The Student Perspective

At the 2012 Summery Olympics, India won 4 bronze medals, 2 silver, and zero gold. How can 20% of humanity win barely 0.003% of its Summer Olympic medals?

For most of modern Olympic history, the excuse given was that India was poor and undernourished; although poorer countries were/are faring better. Now, with a booming economy and an emerging middle class, many with first world problems, new fallacies have emerged. 

The NYT India Blog claims claims that is a cultural issue "School-age children are encouraged to study hard, and parents often see sports as an unwanted intrusion on academics".

Actually, school-age children in India are encouraged to study hard, but the extra pressure is a consequence of other problems in India's higher education. - a result of of generations of bad policies.

First, decades of bad policies have ensured that there simply aren't enough university seats to go around. About 8 million students appear for university entrance exams, while about 3 million actually enter college; both numbers shockingly low for a billion+ strong nation.  Each state's education boards have mandated varying percentages of seats, even at private universities, to be reserved for the underprivileged classes. While the long-term performance degradation resulting from such a system deserve another in-depth exploration, the immediate result is that there are simply less seats available in the open education market.  Pre-university students are forced to attend remedial classes to try and get into the choice colleges. This dual system - official classes plus remedial classes - doubles the effort for the same output, effectively halving productivity. Entire generations of young students do not attend regular day classes and hang around waiting for their tenured teachers to leave their official jobs and start evening private remedial classes

Also, students spend many hours a day commuting. Schools in India are not funded by local taxes, and as such there is no physical co-relation between the student's residence and the school he/she attends. In urban areas, before the adult regular rush hour begins, there is another rush hour - school children being hauled from all points in the city to all points in the city, with no manageable patterns of transit.

These combined losses of time and productivity of an entire nation’s youth has significant negative consequences - one of them being low athletic participation that leads to low Olympic turnout.  

Second, price ceilings enacted in the name of the poor have prevented high schools, junior colleges and universities from charging enough fees to build world-class athletic facilities. The resulting economic surplus (difference between a higher price that the customer is willing to pay and the low price that the colleges are forced to charge) has been captured by remedial tuition classes that can, and do, charge high fees, but have no economic incentive to offer athletic facilities. India's heritage educational institutions fade into ruin while modern high-tech remedial classes rise next door.

Another fallacy being circulated is that India doesnt have the money that China's state-run program does, or America's private programs such as the NCAA do. Of course, the prevailing argument goes that developing India could never afford to do what these organizations do Its apparently the lack of money that keeps India from winning at the Olympics.

But hang on, the money is there - A 2009 report by ASSOCHAM estimated that US$ 10 billion outflow is caused by the 500,000 Indian students that go abroad each year due to capacity constraints in India. This economic surplus, that could have paid for athletic facilities in India, amongst other things, is instead captured by other countries. Since 2001, India has been the largest source of foreign students in American colleges, reaching an all-time high of 103,260 in 2009. The same is true for the UK and Australia.

India's education policies have resulted in a system that does the opposite - it actually discourages institutions from investing in sports facilities and dis-incentivizes students from participating in athletic pursuits. Set in motion in the 1950s, these policies have resulted in consequences that have been accepted as "culture" by generations of Indians. This is as much a part of Indian culture as driving beat-up old Chevys is a part of Cuban culture; both are systemic reactions to bad policies, but practiced for so long that no one can remember any other way of life.


  1. No one else ever explored that angle, truly eye-opening. Really makes a lot of sense. People talk about grassroots participation, without looking at the elephant in the room; that is, poor infrastructure.

  2. it is an eye-opening article. Never considered the infrastructure issue directly. I ALWAYS thought it was because the paltry olympic budget was looted by politicians who lacked knowledge on developing talent coupled with an interest for self indulgence at the expense of the athletes and the government.

    Based on what you're saying, which makes sense, based on personal experiences and reading, the academic infrastructure is so bad that now middle class citizens who can't get into government colleges are starting to send their kids to the US as undergrads. Can't remember the article, but I remember reading about this in the WSJ several months back.

    However, I didn't realize the numbers were as bad as they are.

    1. Thanks for the encouraging words.

      Here's the NYT article you were probably referring to

      Stay tuned for more. I've got about 150,000 words of notes, observations, anecdotes, etc. that I'm trying to turn into policy solutions - i.e. the WHY instead of the usual WHAT.