By Vikram Kumar Limsay
Every time I think of India at the Olympics, a recurring thought comes back to me. Is there a link between a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and its medal harvest? Plotting the top 10 countries by Olympic medal count versus the Top 10 by GDP provides an interesting insight to infer that there is a link.
Barcelona-1992 is a good starting point to start the analysis since boycotts marred the three previous Olympic Games. United States in Moscow-1980, USSR in Los Angeles-1984 and North Korea in Seoul-1988. The latest came under the threat of a disturbing bomb threat perpetuated by a bombing attack on a Korean airline.
1992 was also a year in which the geography of the Cold War changed in Europe. The Berlin Wall was breached in 1990. West and East Germany would participate again as one nation. The USSR had disintegrated in 1991 and would send a “unified team” one last time.
For the ranking of the top 10 by GDP, I used both nominal GDP at current prices and GDP by PPP (purchasing power parity) because I consider the latter to be more realistic and representative. In addition, PPP allowed me to put India in the benchmark stream and add variety to the basket of countries. For example, Canada and Spain are starting to come out and South Korea and Indonesia are coming into the frame. Why this happens is for another article. Here I will stick to the correlation of medals with GDP.
Typically, with a few exceptions, all of the Top 10 economies are also in the Top 10 medals at the Olympics. The United States and China are firmly at the top, in accordance with the current global economic order. And Germany and France show a constant trend.
Hungary and Ukraine only feature once in the medal race, possibly busy transitioning to a new post-Cold War world order. Although I have a feeling that the Grand Magyars will be back soon and Ukraine too.
Russia, the focal point of the former USSR, is interesting for observation. Being historically among the first 2, after the disintegration, it slips in the classification of nominal GDP. Infact disappears until Beijing-2008. However, it manages to stay in the GDP ranking on the basis of PPPs and by London-2012, it reappears in both ways. But it is interesting that the nation never leaves the medal ranking. The relative weight of nominal GDP and PPP for the medal correlation might be a point to ponder in detail.
Australia is a glittering exception and hits well above its GDP. It does not appear in any of the GDP rankings but still appears among the medals. Sign of a true sporting nation.
Likewise, even Cuba was an interesting outlier like Australia. It was in the Top 10 medals until Beijing 2008, even though it was not a competitor to GDP. But suddenly then falls off the list. It should be noted that Fidel Castro’s 49-year reign (as Prime Minister and President) also ended in 2008. There is much to think about.
Spain, Canada and Italy reflect a declining medal harvest in line with the relative position of their economies. Over-inflated currencies make Spain and Canada relevant in terms of nominal GDP, but they hardly do so on a PPP basis. An indication that the overall measure of GDP better reflects the count of medals.
Japan hit well below its GDP and only made it to the Top 10 medals in Athens in 2004. The hedonism of Post Plaza and the ostentatious consumption of two decades, perhaps as a rebel reaction from his rigorous work-ethic youth of the post-war generation might be a reason. But since then, Japan seems to have worked on a well-designed plan.
Ditto for Great Britain. A story of hard work, diligence and careful planning. They only entered the Top 10 medal night in Sydney-2000. Japan and Great Britain could be useful case studies for India. It also seems from their two examples that an Olympic bid must subconsciously invigorate a nation to get its sporting adrenaline pumping.
South Korea also reflects a correlation between GDP and the medal count. Although he looks spotty in the medal and GDP rankings and seems to hang on and not give up.
Indonesia is a recent entrant in the GDP ranking via the PPP route. Its historic performance in medals reflects India. All of his Golds have been in badminton. But a country to watch If it maintains its focus on GDP, that’s good.
THAT TAKES ME TO INDIA!
As Tokyo-2020 (21) dawns, it seems to many that this one will be special. There is general positivity among athletes, the administrative ecosystem, and the public. For the first time, we had a sports minister involved in Kiren Rijiju and the prime minister himself. Athletes seem to be reaching their “prime” at the right time, and everything looks good.
Prediction? It promises to be India’s best and largest medal harvest ever. Pleasant surprises are expected on the ingots and the glitter quotient. Efficiency, a fraction of those involved in victory may be the best ever. We will emerge as a force to be reckoned with in categories like shooting, wrestling, boxing, archery and badminton. Most importantly, Tokyo 2020 will be where India begins its journey to align its GDP story with its medal crop. And like everyone else, I keep my fingers crossed.
But being in the top 10 in terms of medals is still a few Olympics away. Statistically at least, it looks like we’ll need to consistently mark both nominal GDP and PPP.
But more importantly, we will need to address the mismatch between the mix of contingents and events. Swimming, for example, represents 35 medal events and we have a contingent of 3. Athletics has more than 70 and we send only 25. There are more than 300 medal events with 1000 possibilities to win and our contingent is barely 125.
And this is where the connection between GDP and the Olympic Games medal count lies. Leading economies are investing heavily in sport with micro-managed planning for each discipline in both breadth and depth. The lessons of South Korea, Great Britain and Japan will be useful. And a bid for the Olympics will accelerate our efforts. We haven’t really started until now. The fact remains that a great nation is also a great sporting nation.
And we will have to wait for Paris-2024 or even Los Angeles-2028 to obtain some equity between our ranking of medals and that of GDP. Until then, let’s get into the spirit of sport and the Olympics … faster, higher, stronger … forever. Because few things unite a nation and the world like sport.
-The author is a business strategist. The opinions expressed are personal.