For a country with a population of 1.25 billion people, India has lagged behind in medal count since the country’s first Olympic appearance at the 1900 Paris games. Team India has secured as many medals total as the 28 Michael Phelps has earned in his career.
According to CNBC, factors such as the irresponsible use of public resources, a weak sports infrastructure and institutional focus on political agendas rather than athletes causes potential Olympic talent to be overlooked or go without proper training facilities and support in India.
However, Madhuli Kulkarni, a sports psychologist based in Delhi, said to Euronews that the fact that academics are prioritized over athletics in Indian culture is the most prominent cause for the country’s underperformance at the Olympics.
A Hindi saying, roughly translated, goes, “If you play, you will be a waste, but if you study and do well in school, you will be a king.” This perfectly encapsulates the attitude Indian families share about success, and only a small portion of the population recognizes other displays of excellence in non-academic fields.
Growing up in an Indian household, my performance in school was a constant topic of discussion, but not in a way that made me feel trapped. My parents instilled in me the quality to strive for excellence in everything I do, but didn’t limit the opportunities I could explore.
For example, I was free to pursue my interests unhindered in college and I was immediately drawn to student media. I grew increasingly involved with each passing year, and although being a student journalist doesn’t directly correlate with the accounting and finance degree I’m pursuing, my parents were fully supportive of my journey.
Others I’ve met in student media, who come from Indian backgrounds, haven’t been so lucky and have to hide their involvement from their parents.
This emphasis on academic and classroom-based pursuits over forging a path to success through extracurricular involvement has kept much talent at bay, especially with regards to Indian Olympians.
Anirudh Krishna, a professor at Duke University, pointed out to CNBC that India’s talent goes unnoticed because “the root problem … is one of limited and ineffective participation,” for lack of support from the community.
However, the parents of some of the athletes at Rio should be commended for their unwavering support.
Badminton player P.V. Sindhu’s father took an eight-month leave from work to help his daughter train for her event at the Olympics, driving her to practice at 4 a.m. each morning and discussing her game, according to Sportskeeda.
Similarly, gymnast Dipa Karmakar’s father identified her talent as early as 6 years old and enrolled her at the gymnasium in Agartala, the city that’s she’s from, according to the Indian Express. Karmakar earned a gold medal just two years after in the Northeastern Games Competition, setting off her path to Rio.
Although a total of 117 athletes are representing India during the 2016 Summer Olympics, the largest delegation yet, many of those competitors have had to fight for their ability to participate. A big reason for that is a narrow-minded approach to success and lack of support from members of an athlete or potential athlete’s household.
Boria Majumdar, an Indian sports scholar, said it best: “Unless there is a synergized sports culture, you will never win a string of medals. A fundamental overhaul is needed and urgently so.”