One of my more interesting pastimes these days is to read posts on the Asia Times Online forums, [1] which offer stunning entertainment value as well as fodder for contemplation.

The Beijing Summer Olympic Games that open on Friday have sparked substantive debate about the quality and quantity of winners, with the all-important gold medal tally by country being the most contentious aspect of recent discussions. Winning an impressive tally of gold medals appears to be a matter of national, ethnic, moral and perhaps even religious pride.

Many posters have opined that China will win more medals than the United States, for the first time, and in so doing push the demographically-challenged nations of Europe and Japan deeper into their death spiral as these countries mark their exit from the world stage. Equal fervor is expended on these forums on the pathetic record of India, a subject I touch on later in this article.

For people like me whose idea of exercise is to carry a six-pack of beer from the kitchen to the living room television viewing station – fancy name for a chair with a convenient beer stand – the questions about success in sport come in two particular forms: firstly, the one about the sheer hard work needed for these athletes to excel: that is, what motivates these amazing youngsters to the standards of excellence seen in sports. What force, rational or irrational, guides a 10-year-old to practice running 32 kilometers or more every day to shave that elusive last minute or last second from the time it takes to do their marathon or 100 meter sprint?

Then there is the question of innate talent, which is where the aspects of national, ethnic and religious pride come into the picture as the concept of bred superiority explains a large part of this genetic makeup that provides specific advantages. This one is relatively easy, harking as it does back to evolutionary forces that help adapt the human body to its environment. Essentially, this evolution of sporting abilities can be explained in much the same way that people in Europe are tall and pale, while those in equatorial Africa are shorter and darker.

Thus, athletes from the plains of Africa come from a stock of people who need to run long distances for gathering the essentials of their survival, be it for hunting meat or collecting water. Similar muscle growth isn’t required for a bunch of farmers who benefit from readily available water for their agriculture: these people though need greater upper body strength than the aforementioned Africans as their existence depends on extracting every last calorie from the land.

All of the above though is in effect inconsequential to a globalizing world. The famed athletes of Africa have passed their genes to today’s African-Americans, who face challenges quite different from those of their forefathers. They don’t have to do anything more self-exerting than stand in the queue of their local fast food restaurant for their daily calorie needs; however to do better they have to choose careers that offer enough upside.

Herein the challenges of navigating the biases of corporate America forced many an African-American to turn to sports as success on a level playing field did more to combat ingrained racism than any other single factor. In turn, competing against genetically blessed athletes forced the less naturally gifted athletes of America to either turn to less demanding sports or adapt their skills.

The US is truly a microcosm of this evolution, as the relative openness in the selection process combined with the lure of endorsement riches for successful athletes provides a strong pipeline of talent. Immigrants bring their special genetically acquired skill set to the land of the free, in turn broadening the scope of gaining medals. That is why the US has dominated various sport activities.

Russia and China

On the other end of the scale are the two countries that vied for second and third place in the Athens Olympics in 2004, Russia and China. Superficially at least, there are major similarities between the two countries in contrast to the current leader: three in particular stand out. Firstly, the common genetic heritage of Russian and Chinese athletes across various disciplines stands in sharp contrast to the diverse crowd of Americans; secondly, the centralized top-down approach to managing athletes that in turn harked back to communist days again in contrast to the flat organization structure of the US Olympic team. And thirdly, the humility and team-orientation of the Russians and Chinese in contrast to the more bombastic and individualistic American contingent.

The first factor is almost entirely mythical – the genetic makeup of the Russian and Chinese teams is distinctly not from the dominant races of those countries as both countries realized the need to broaden their talent pool early on by incorporating people with specific skill sets for specific medal events.

That is why we could see distinct similarities between the Russian and Chinese archery teams in the past two Olympic events, as both countries relied on people from their border with Mongolia.

That neatly dovetails to the next point: the scale of involvement by government bodies. Winning medals in Olympic events was always important for communist governments, ever since Adolf Hitler made a big deal of highlighting “Aryan superiority” in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Joseph Stalin took it to heart and so did the authorities of all European communist countries, in what must be one of the most widespread cases of victims acquiring the habits of their oppressors.

China has followed in these traditions, although with a different purpose. Communists in China needed success in sports to highlight the people’s ability to adapt to outside forces, that is, those of the market; and also for enhancing the pride of Chinese people globally. The latter move has been shrewd in particular, helping to attract support for the Chinese team in all countries where Chinese emigres occupy prominent positions in commerce and trade, including the US and Europe.

The reason for the communists to want sporting success is indelibly associated with their own lack of political legitimacy. Puffing up national pride from such victories is a sure-fire way of diverting criticism of the center: in other words, the logic of “this government prepares world-class athletes, so don’t blame us for bread shortages but look instead at the incompetence of your local officials”. All of this is part of the game played by communist governments on their people by creating a perverse system that depends on socializing successes in the world of sport and personalizing failures in all other areas.

Communist governments, and most notably those running East Germany, crossed many lines of accepted medical practice in engineering a new class of athletes to be faster and stronger; the effects of which were only felt by the individual athletes long after they had passed from the public eye.

In sports such as gymnastics, where performance-enhancing drugs couldn’t possibly provide any advantages, the regimen was replaced with a brutal one of whittling down thousands of children to a handful of champions by controlling every minute of their existence. Those who broke their bones or their spirits weren’t heard of again, this human tragedy wasn’t uncovered until well after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

It is, however, the last of the three factors mentioned above that truly identifies the differences: Americans look to the opportunities presented by success, while both Russian and Chinese athletes appear to fear the downside associated with failure.

While American athletes inevitably come from family environments, those from Russia and China have far less connection with their own families, having been adopted by the state. Put more crudely, American athletes are driven by greed while those from Russia and China were driven by fear.

The operative word in the last sentence is “were” – I believe that in the case of Russia at least, its athletes have much more to look forward to rather than fear, as economic strength has created substantial opportunities for individual achievements to be rewarded. It would be the same for China, but for the simple fact that being at home can provide substantially higher pressure for its athletes which they wouldn’t feel again for a long time.

What about India?

By far the most vexing question is the one that concerns the utter failure of India to garner any individual athletic gold medals in the Olympics, with success only coming in field hockey, and that too only until about 25 years ago. How can a nation of a billion people that prides itself as a budding economic power have produced no global champions at all?

The forums referred to in the first paragraph provide some answers, which can be categorized broadly as follows:

  • Indians genetically lack the ability for athletic success: the “inferiority” angle.
  • Corruption and incompetence on the part of the government.
  • Lack of individual incentives.

The second point is certainly the most frequented cited by ethnic Indians to explain the gargantuan failure. From what I can understand, the bureaucratic nature of the sports authorities combined with their utter lack of accountability and massive corruption all combined to destroy the selection and training process for Indian athletes.

They pointed to the spectacle of the Indian hockey team that failed to qualify for the Olympics this year, even as its top officials were arraigned for corruption. Given the democratic nature of the Indian government and its famously open media, I am at a loss to understand how this situation has persisted – as Indians claim – for the past 50 years. This is clearly a matter that requires greater reform than most other areas in which the Indian government is involved.

I spent some time with Indian sports journalists recently, and consider the first angle quite meaningless. While it is true that the agrarian nature of the Indian sub-continent as well as weather patterns offer significant challenges to creating global winners in, say, long-distance running, it hasn’t really limited the athleticism of one group of Indians at least.

As one writer pointed out, Indians do excel in games like cricket, where the necessary skills are broadly comparable to the best athletic requirements globally. For example, the upper body strength required for bowling in cricket is comparable to that required for field athletic events such as shot putt and throwing the javelin and discus. Similarly, the dexterity and stamina needed for batting is quite easily portable to many other Olympic events, including the all-important athletic events.

If genetics do not offer any evidence of poor performance for Indians, what does? My view is that simple economics does. Indian cricketers are among the highest paid athletes in the world, a category that includes professional baseball players in the US to football (soccer) players in Europe. The contrast between this fabulous wealth and the rough-and-ready existence of hundreds of millions of people has perhaps created a lopsided incentive structure that pushes sportsmen to either become cricketers or choose less risky careers in the world of banking or information technology.

The country’s best athletes would rather be second-rate cricketers than first-rate runners or javelin-throwers because of the skewed nature of sports funding and branding in India. The dominance of one sport has thus helped to elbow out the talent in most other fields.

That situation is bound to change. As the economy continues to expand – despite the best efforts of the government to derail it – Indians will broaden their interests. In so doing, they will change the incentive structure of sports in India. When that happens, sporting success will follow as surely as it did for countries such as the US.