Earning just six medals (none gold), India largely ignored the Games. Therein lies its wisdom and glory
Interviewed last week for a British radio program on childhood obesity—British children are on track for the gold medal for fatness—I happened to hear a Nigerian sports journalist who said that his fellow countrymen were furious that no Nigerian competitor won a medal at the Olympic Games. After all, he continued, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, with the largest financial resources; the government ought to spend more on sports facilities.
The interviewer very properly asked him whether the government might not have other priorities. It is certainly true that the first thought of any visitor to Nigeria wouldn't be: "This country desperately needs more world-class discus throwers."
The Nigerian journalist replied that there are always other priorities, for any activity at all. It depended on the importance you accorded to sports.
Precisely. And in this matter there is one shining beacon in the world: India. Its low tally of medals in the Olympic Games puts practically all other countries to shame. With a sixth of the world's population, it won only six medals, none of them gold—that is to say, it won fewer, pro rata, than half a percent of the medals won by Britain and 1.25% of those won by the U.S.
It is not that India tried and failed. It did not try, and therein lies its peculiar wisdom and glory. Almost alone of the nations of the world, it more or less ignored the Games. But it is India, whose government does nothing to encourage (or deter) its athletes, that is right, not the rest of the world.
There is a bimodal distribution of countries that are enthusiastic about winning Olympic medals: They are either populist or ideological. Britain, for example, falls into the former category. Woe betide the British person who dares to suggest that his country's excellent performance at the Games wasn't a sign of national regeneration but of national frivolity and meretriciousness, to which its population and its leaders now turn as naturally as some flowers turn to the sun.
There are no prizes for guessing into which category falls North Korea, which did about a hundred times better at the Games than India. There is nothing a totalitarian regime likes more than devoting its citizens to pointless activities, such as throwing the javelin, and then claiming, when one of them does it better than anyone else in the world, that it proves the brilliance of the dictator and the beneficent efficiency of his rule. How else could such excellence result?
No typology of complex social realities can be perfect, though, and so it must be admitted that there are intermediate forms between the two types of countries. The U.S. and Britain could be said to be intermediate, insofar as some politicians used the Games as a photo opportunity. Other public figures pointed to the prowess of their country's athletes as evidence that success comes with effort and determination. But was there ever a time when we did not know that?
India alone values the Games at their true worth—which is to say, approaching nil. It is not that Indians are completely indifferent to sports. They are crazy about cricket, a game whose considerable subtleties are lost on all who did not grow up with it but which teaches mental flexibility as well as specific skills.
But no official encouragement is necessary to promote this enthusiasm. On every field of every Indian city, ragged children can be seen playing with improvised equipment, as richer children play with the latest kits. It is no coincidence that, economically, India now dominates this most English of games. India has taken over cricket as its companies have taken over British companies.
For reasons that I am unable to fathom, for no person is less interested in sports than I, the United Nations Development Program regularly sends me updates on its efforts to promote economic and social progress through athletics. India, I am glad to say, does not believe in this nonsense.
Last Wednesday, India celebrated the 65th anniversary of its independence, and officials announced that it would send a space probe to Mars. This is something quite beyond the technical powers or prowess of its former colonial masters—though they, of course, did far better at the Olympics. I hope India will maintain its ability to discriminate between the worthwhile and the worthless.