Tuesday, August 12, 2008

On India's first Gold at Olympics

Daniel Johnson, an economist from Colarado College recently made a model to predict Olympic gold medals tally. He found a 96-98% correlation between the number of medals won and the following five factors: (i) GDP per capita, (ii) total population, (iii) political structure (democratic, authoritarian, military or communist), (iv) climate (the number of frost days) and (v) home-nation bias.

While most developed nations clearly fit the model, India and China are gigantic exceptions. $800 million expenditure by Chinese authorities may offset (i) and (v) of the five factors. Heather Simmons of NYT best explained India's state in one single phrase: "Mysteriously, a non-athletic nation."

The funny thing about the whole debate is that it is Bindra's gold that is being used as a backdrop to it. If not for his Gold, the debate would have never taken place and a billion+ ppl would have happily watched yet another action-scandal packed mysterious murder case in Gurgaon being reported at 180 decibels with gushing adrenalin in racy-catchy-rhymy breaking-news headlines that are terrible at pretending to be the ones challenging institutions and culture.

China won its first gold in 1984 when India was still busy buying color televisions after the 1983 win. But a 1983 win in England is enough to offset everything and eclipse the nation with decades of complacency. On the other hand, China started its economic reforms in 1970s. A twenty year lag / lead there.

BBC is running a wonderful series called "Against all Odds", a program about atheletes who have been excelling against extreme odds and still made it to the Olympics. The series features a marothoner from Cambodia is forced to run on traffic filled roads. He regular dodges chaotic traffic and slows down at traffic jams and lights. What is insightful here is, he is obviously an exception. He would love all those 'infrastructural resources' like better shoes, nicer tracks to train on, time keepers telling him where he stumbles, and carb rich food to give him the extra oomph, etc. What is more important than sporting equipment here is probably the little eco system he trains and lives in. Doing it alone is Herculean or Achillean in this case. Volleyball and basketball may be less obvious, but they do have their own little cocoons to live in.

There is something more important to do with culture that can fundamentally sets people's lives and destinies in stone: Expectations and Measurements. If a culture expects its inhabitants to grow up into worker bees or ants and measures success in their lives by the amount of pay loads they carry, they would never be flies or butterflies. If the expectation is to get a software job by 21 and get married before 30, Lance Armstrong would be the pinnacle of failure. But thankfully, people like Bindra help set new expectations, and it may not be long before measurements show off some of those expectations.

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