Does Poverty and Lack of Social Mobility Account for India’s Poor Olympic Performance?

Given India’s population, it is a puzzle why it has not won more Olympic medals. Anirudh Krishna and Eric Haglund provide one plausible answer in Economic and Political Weekly (via this piece in the Guardian):

Compared to its share in the world’s population, India’s share of Olympic medals is abysmally low. In the 2004 Olympic Games, for example, India won only one medal. Turkey, which has less than one-tenth of India’s population, won 10 times as many medals, and Thailand, which has roughly 6 per cent of India’s population, won eight times as many medals. India’s one-sixth share in the world’s population translated into a 1/929 share in 2004 Olympic medals. While Australia won 2.46 medals per one-million population and Cuba won 2.39 medals per one-million population, India brought up the bottom of this international chart, winning a mere 0.0009 medals per one-million population. Nigeria, next lowest, had 18 times this number, winning 0.015 medals per one-million population.1 Why does the average Indian count for so little?

What prevents the translation of India’s huge number of people into a proportionate – or even near-proportionate – number of Olympic medals? The gross domestic product certainly matters, as previous analyses have indicated [Bernard and Busse 2004], but something else also seems to be making a difference, given that Cuba, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Kenya and Uzbekistan – countries not known for having high average incomes – have won many more medals than India, despite having a far smaller national population. Why do 10 million Indians win less than one-hundredth of one Olympic medal, while 10 million Uzbeks won 4.7 Olympic medals?

In this article, we explore the concept of effectively participating population, arguing that not everyone in a country has equal access to competitive sports – or for that matter, to other arenas, including the political and economic ones. Many are not effective participants on account of ignorance or disinterest, disability or deterrence.