The Olympic size difference between India and China by Shashi Tharoor

The recent Tokyo Olympics provided further evidence why “chindia,” a term that was popular about ten years ago, is barely heard nowadays. While China’s disciplined, government-led preparation resulted in a huge medal win, India’s chaotic organization resulted in the country ranking behind the Bahamas and Kosovo.

NEW DELHI – The Tokyo Olympics are over and the people and government of Japan are relieved that the spectacle has passed without a major COVID-19 outbreak in the Athletes’ Village or other disasters. Here in India, the celebrations over the country’s first gold medal in the men’s javelin – and the best medal achievement ever in a single Olympiad – have not yet subsided. But how good is our best really?

About a decade ago many spoke of India and China in the same breath. The two countries were supposedly the new contenders for global eminence after centuries of Western supremacy, the Oriental answer to generations of Western economic success. Some even spoke of “Chindia” as if they were connected at the hip in the international performance.

But if you are looking for confirmation that such a partnership is out of place to say the least, you only need to look at the medal balance in Tokyo. China took proud second place with 38 gold medals – one fewer than the United States – and a total of 88 medals. Now scroll down past Belarus, divided Georgia, the Bahamas, and even the breakaway province of Kosovo (whose independence India does not recognize). India is in 48th place with a total of seven medals, one gold, two silver and four bronze medals.

In fact, this is no surprise. While China has been systematically seeking Olympic success since reentering global sports competition after years of isolation, India remains complacent about its lack of athletic skill. China campaigned for the Summer Olympics and won the right to host it barely two decades after its return to the Games. But India rested on its laurels after hosting the Asian Games in Delhi in 1982 and is now considered further behind in the competition to host the Olympic Games than it was four decades ago.

In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China launched “Project 119,” a government program specifically designed to promote the country’s Olympic medal wins (the 119 refers to the number of gold medals won at the 2000 Sydney Games were awarded in such medals). Sports such as athletics, swimming, rowing, sailing as well as canoeing and kayaking). The Indians, on the other hand, are wondering whether they will ever break the magical limit of ten medals.

Given the many medals on offer in kayaking, China decided to create a team to master a sport previously unknown in China. But India has not even campaigned successfully to include the few sports it plays well, such as kabaddi (a form of tag team wrestling), polo, or cricket, which were played in the 1900 Olympics and never after.

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Likewise, China has developed new strengths in other nontraditional sports such as shooting, while maintaining its dominance in table tennis and badminton. India, on the other hand, has faded its once legendary invincibility in field hockey with the introduction of artificial turf, so that bronze caused great enthusiasm for the men’s team in Tokyo. Forget “Chindia” when playing sport – the two countries hardly belong in one sentence.

What happened at the Olympics suggests a fundamental difference in the systems of the two countries. Metaphorically speaking, it is the creative chaos of the singing and dancing Bollywood compared to the perfectly choreographed precision of the 2008 opening ceremony in Beijing.

As befits a communist autocracy, the Chinese approached the task of dominating the Olympic Games with top-down military discipline. The goal was set, a program to achieve it was established, considerable state resources were used, state-of-the-art technology was acquired, and world-class coaches were imported. India, on the other hand, approached the Tokyo Olympics like everyone else, with its usual combination of amiable amateurism, bureaucratic ineptitude, half-hearted experimentation, and chaotic organization.

That’s just how we are. If the Chinese authorities want to build a new six-lane expressway, they can move past any number of villages. But anyone who wants to widen a two-lane road in India could be tied up in court for a dozen years arguing about claims for damages. In China, national priorities are set by the government and then funded by the state; in India they arise from seemingly endless discussions and clashes between myriad interests, and resources must be found where they can. China’s budget for preparing its athletes for the Tokyo Games alone has likely exceeded India’s spending on all Olympic training for the past 70 years.

So while India produces individual excellence despite the limitations of the system, individual success in China is a product of the system. Indians shine wherever individual talents are given free rein. The country has produced world-class computer scientists, mathematicians, biotech researchers, filmmakers and novelists. But face a challenge that requires a great deal of organization, strict discipline, sophisticated equipment, systematic training, and resilient budgets, and the Indians tremble. Significantly, the only Indians who have won the world title in recent years have been a billiards player and a chess grandmaster.

In Tokyo, the coveted Indian shooters failed because of a single medal due to setbacks such as a defective trigger on a world champion pistol that could not be repaired quickly enough. The best table tennis player refused the advice of her trainer, snubbed the official Indian trainer, resulting in disciplinary action. Our archer, who is number 1 in the world rankings, did not pass her qualifying round.

India’s pool of athletic talent is smaller than its large population suggests; In a land of existential challenges and intense competition for every opportunity, few feel able or inclined to devote the time to master a sport. The system is not designed to discover athletic talent, and many who do lack the health, nutrition, athletic infrastructure, and training resources necessary to make a name for themselves around the world.

In contrast to China, India is a divided democracy. China will win many Olympic medals for many upcoming games. But India might win some hearts.

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