India, the sleeping sport giant?

Is India a “sleeping sport giant”? If so, when will India wake up and become a consistent top 10 sport nation? That’s a question many sport leaders in the world have been asking over the past decades. I am sure that many people within India have questioned it themselves as well. 

Why is it that India is under-performing on big sport events? You would expect that India, a sport-minded and large country in terms of land-mass and population, (1.35 billion inhabitants, with approximately 50% under the age of 25) have enough potential athletes to be competitive with the top sport nations in the world. Especially if you also consider India’s broad diversity in culture and people as well as its colonial legacy. That clearly reflected in the wide variety of sporting disciplines across the country.

India has several highly popular mainstream sports like cricket, badminton, and football; while millions of other Indians are playing other sports such as field hockey, wrestling, weightlifting shooting, boxing, tennis, squash, table tennis, gymnastics, athletics, cycling, volleyball and basketball.   

However, despite the large population and the huge interest in sport, it seems that the interest in sport is more in the form of entertainment than participation. Research done in 2018 stated that only 2 per cent of the total population actively participates in sport. That makes India relatively one of the countries with the lowest sport participation rate. In absolute numbers that is still 27 million people participating sport, that’s more than the entire population of either Australia or the Netherlands, both of whom are consistently in the top 10 position on the Olympic Games.

The difference between both of those countries and India is that sport is embedded in their culture, and both countries have an optimal infrastructure that allows their population to practice sport on every level. From community clubs, to physical education at school and from many private sport clubs to un-organized sport participation in parks, on roads or at outdoor sport facilities. But it all starts with an early introduction to a wide range of different sports through physical education programs in schools. Physical education helps children to socialize, develop a healthy lifestyle and it has a significant positive effect on academic performance. It also helps children at an early age to develop important fundamental motor skills that are essential for the future development of a competitive athlete. The wide variety of sports offered during physical educations classes helps children to develop multi-sport skills but equally as important it introduces children to other sports besides the mainstream sports in a country; a perfect opportunity for other sports to be tried and potentially adopted as competitive and/or lifelong activities. Sports that are practiced after school at community clubs or through college/university sport programs with thousands of participants across different sports each weekend are the foundation of a healthy sport system.

Unfortunately, many children in India do not get this introduction to sport. There are several reasons for this, such as poverty, lack of (and lack of access to) sport facilities, and the complexity of a large country with different states and policies and so on. In many situations, children rely more on their close surroundings; if a family member participates in a sport then children in that family often participate in that same sport. But with 98 per cent of the population not participating in regular sport the chance that a child will get a proper introduction to a sport (or multiple sports) is very small. And in case of the other 2 per cent, the chances are even smaller that it is a sport outside of mainstream sports; which does not benefit further stimulation of multi-skill development. 

Despite the less than desirable sport culture and the less than ideal sport system, India has a huge desire to host multi-sport events like the Olympic Games or the Asian Games. India has already made their interest official for the 2032 Olympic Games, and the next possibility to host the Asian Games will be 2034, as the 2030 edition seems likely to go to a Middle East nation. With the knowledge that the country has a low sport participation rate and doesn’t have a solid foundation to support appropriate athlete development, there is a lot of work and investment that needs to be done in the long-term planning of a particular sport program, or an entire sport system, to become successful during the Games. Bidding for and staging major events requires enormous investment for host countries. Of course, they bring festivities and national sense of “feeling-good”, stimuli for the local economy, tourism and job opportunities. They develop the country’s infrastructure and can be powerful agents for regeneration beyond just in sport. But amongst all the related festivities and in front of visiting fans from around the world, countries also want their home team to perform like never before. Host countries always want to achieve their best medal performance on home soil. From the moment the games are awarded, host nations have approximately seven years of preparation to get their national teams to their highest competitive level. That seems like plenty of time, but it is still insufficient for countries at a lower starting point to produce medal contenders in enough sports and events to have a significant impact on the medal table.

Based on history, India cannot claim convincing multi-sport performances on the world stage. India’s first performance on the Olympic Games was in 1900 – good for 2 silver medals in Athletics. Since then India has participated in 23 more Summer Games and 10 Winter Games editions with a total win of 28 medals: 9 gold, 7 silver and 12 Bronze medals. Until today Field Hockey has been providing India the most Olympic Success with a total of 11 medals (8 Gold, 1 Silver, 2 Bronze) but their last medal success dates back to the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow; over 40 years and 9 Olympic Games ago. The other medals have been distributed over 6 more sports; Badminton, Boxing, Shooting, Tennis, Weightlifting and Wrestling. India had its most successful Olympic campaign during the 2012 Olympic Games in London with a total of 6 medals (1 Badminton, 1 Boxing, 2 Shooting and 2 Wrestling). Unfortunately, this had no continuation as only 2 medals (Badminton and Wrestling) were collected in Rio 2016. In comparison to the dry years in terms of medal success since 1980, India seems to have made slight progress; however, with only 1 medal from the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympics and 3 medals in 2008, the results are still mediocre at best. Especially when you consider the significant increase of athletes participating in the respective  Games since 1996 (49) to 2016 (112)..

A huge increase in athletes was also visible during the last edition of the Asian Games. The 2018 Asian Games saw 625 Indian athletes compete: a 61% increase from the team size in the 2006 Asian Games (only 387 Indian athletes). Indeed in the previous 2 Asian Games India participated with fewer athletes than in 2018, but still 40 percent more than in 2006. And remember that there are no qualifying criteria for participating in the Asian Games. The increase in athletes has resulted in more medals. Thirty-nine (39) percent of the Indian Olympic medals total was achieved over the last 3 Games and almost 29% of the total number of Asian Games medals (672) were won over the last 3 editions. On the surface it seems as though India’s results are improving; but the question remains – how efficient were the Olympic and Asian Games in terms of results? 

In the table below, the numbers of athletes are linked with the numbers of event starts, which represent the potential number of medals that can be achieved during the event (e.g. Men’s Field with 16 participants are calculated as 1 start). Looking into the numbers we can conclude that for both the Olympics and the Asian Games the efficiency of converting a start in a final (usually top 8) is far below 50%. In India’s most successful Olympic Games only 20% of the 69 starts resulted in a final classification, with just 9% resulting in medals. During the last and most successful Asian Games this was 48% out of the 397 starts. What means that 234 starts resulted in classifications in the top 16 or lower? 

Every sport nation’s objective is to get the maximum result from your athletes with the aim of getting as many medals or final places, at least to be as efficient as possible. You do not achieve this by allowing only a large group of athletes to participate, but rather by optimally training the athletes and participating in competitions that contribute to the development of the athletes. To achieve this, it is mandatory to provide the athletes with the best coaches, the best scientific and medical support staff, the best training environment, the best long-term athlete/player development structure and the best governance and management system at all levels of sport. Especially when the countries against which you are competing are providing this same high level of services to their athletes and coaches. To make a real difference it is necessary to examine and manage the “details”. The details in this case include training and coaching, details in the expertise support services level, the details in selection (and de-selection) policies to ensure that the right athletes are in the preparation programs. This process that takes time and requires consistent investment and development and right decision-making at the highest levels to bring India to the top 10 of sport nations.

In the table below the performance of India since 2010 is compared with some of the top 10 countries in the same year. In the non-Olympic years, the Olympic medal events are replaced by that year’s World Championship medals on the same event (called Relative Olympic Medal Table). The Olympic years (2012, 2016) are highlighted. 

* per 1st May 2020

Based on the numbers in the table above, an average of above 28 medals is required to reach a position in the top 10. In addition to the total number of medals, Top 10 countries also typically win medals in 10 to 20 sports. India has only won a maximum 12 medals during one year (2019 and current standing) in 5 sports – Archery, Badminton, Boxing, Shooting and Wresting. Similarly, for the last 2 Olympic Games India has only averaged 4 medals in 4 sports. To meet the likely national expectations of Team India being in the Top 10 at the 2032 Olympic Games India needs to dramatically increase its competitiveness in more than 4 sports.

India will need to start performing in more sport disciplines as well as maintaining and enhancing medal performances within their current strengths. Selecting sports and disciplines on which to focus investment and effort should be based on (at least) 2 criteria: 

  1. Sports and events that “fit” with the culture of India, to deliver a legacy of inspiration for future generations and; 
  2. Sports and events in which it is realistic to aspire to develop Olympic medal performances within 12 years. 

Home advantage per se and adding national sports to the program will have some impact on the performance outcome but won’t be enough by itself to close the gap to the top 10.

The majority of the athletes who will participate in the 2032 Olympic Games are currently in their early-to-mid-teens and should already be identified and in talent development programs. The development and identification processes for young athletes to represent India needs to start now. In general, the time from identification to the first world-level performance takes at least 8 years of hard training and preparation. It will take 4 years to plan and implement the right level of training programs. Therefore, with 12 years to go until the 2032 Summer Olympics and 14 years to the 2034 Asian Games, now is the right time for India to activate and enhance the high performance (and grassroots development) sport system to develop a large group of athletes to be in their prime in 2032 and 2034. In other words, the foundation to build a legacy for a sport system has to start now not a few years before the next Games.

As a host nation, India has the possibility to participate in more events during the Olympic Games (vs. if they were not the host country). This can become a possible internal conflict in the decision-making process regarding in which sports to invest and develop. Accepting that the majority of Indian sports are less well-developed or don’t have a sustainable infrastructure, compared to current Top 10 countries, and will need a lot of re-structuring and development time the question is “Will India invest and go for all sports, without any guarantees that every sport will deliver during the Games, or target a smaller number of sports with higher medal conversion efficiency”? A decision that has time and money consuming implications, but at the same time can become the foundation a life-changing legacy for the Indian sport system. 

Will India move in a direction of investing in only a small number of targeted sports that have a reasonable chance to win medals or top 8 classifications that are among their cultural and mainstream sports. This 2nd option (vs. investment in a wide range of sports) will still require a large investment and development, but with 12 years until the 2032 Olympic Games it is a manageable option. The question then becomes – “What are the targeted sports”? Is it better to do battle with the big sport nations in the heavily developed and highly competitive sports, or is it better to target sports where there is a higher probability for medal success? The decision will rest on a number of factors, including (but not limited to) the group of young athletes who are currently in the existing sports programs, sports that are already reasonably organized and competitive, and sports that are “quicker and easier” to develop. Other relevant questions will be how and where will the sport programs be organized? And how to support and maintain all the athletes in their journey to success? Can external organizations that currently support outstanding sport persons have an important role (such as the Indian Railway or others)? 

These are just a few of many questions for the Indian sport authorities and decision-makers will have to face as they move forward; questions that need answers now so as not to lose valuable development time. 

Now is the time in India to bring Sport Federations, National and State government sport authorities, the National Olympic and Paralympic Committees and other important experts and stakeholders and together to design an effective and efficient national sport strategy and to identify, plan and develop the sport programs that will deliver success on the long-term. Now is the time to build the legacy that forever wakes up the sleeping giant.

Niek Nijboer, Managing Partner APEX Global Sport Group. 

Niek Nijboer is currently Managing Partner of APEX Global Sport Group’s has extensive experience in sport program and sport organization review and analysis, strategic planning, development of athlete pathways, coach development, design and implementation of Talent Identification and Development programs, and the design of high-performance programs and environments.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Bizbehindsports and Bizbehindsports does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.


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