Why India Struggles to Secure Olympic Medals

Despite being the second most populous country with a thriving economy and robust infrastructure, India's poor performance at the international sports arena is baffling. A deep dive into the malady and the remedy in view of the forthcoming Paris Olympics

Sharad Gupta
New Update
Paris Olympics

Paris Olympics

The Olympic Games, a spectacle of athleticism and national pride, provide a platform for countries to showcase their sporting prowess. However, India's struggle to consistently secure medals at the Olympics has been a topic of discussion and concern. Despite having the second largest population – 140 billion, India has faced challenges in translating its potential into podium finishes.

India has, during its past 104 years of Olympic journey, cumulatively won 35 medals – just seven more than what Michael Phelps won single-handedly. The country has won only 10 gold medals including eight in hockey. The first gold in an individual event was won by Abhinav Bindra in the 2008 Beining Olympics for 10m rifle shooting.

India sent its biggest-ever Olympic contingent -124 athletes- to Tokyo Olympics in 2020. It returned with only 7 medals including one gold – won by Javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra. It was placed at an abysmally low 47th rank, much below minuscule countries like the Bahamas, Uganda, and trouble-torn Kosovo. In the 2016 Rio Olympics, the Indian contingent came with only two medals – one silver and a bronze. In 2012 London, it bagged its best haul, six medals, or on for every 200 million people. In 2008, it got just three medals. Before that in 2004 Athens, the team escaped from the ignominy of returning empty-handed – it was lucky to win a solitary medal.

On the one hand, the Indian Cricket Control Board collects two-thirds of the total funds generated worldwide for this sport, on the other hand, other sports are so starved of funds that athletes have been forced to crowdsource their sporting journey. This is at a time when the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog has launched ambitious plans like Khelo India, setting a goal of 50 medals – a target termed too exaggerated by many experts - for the forthcoming Tokyo event.

In a report titled ‘Lets Play’, NITI Ayog has suggested several medium to long term recommendations. These include targeting village and tribal students, including sports as a mandatory subject in the school curriculum and recruitment of world-class coaches, and trainers and improving sports infrastructure through public private partnership.

India is blessed with various climatic conditions. Every possible sport could be played in India. We are soon going to be the World’s third-largest economy. Our industrial and economic growth is a matter of envy for the world. Then what plagues Indian sports?  why can’t India win medals in internal tournaments?

Many reasons like government apathy and lack of infrastructure have been ascribed to this abysmal performance. Some of the more plausible explanations are lack of funds, poor infrastructure, less exposure to international tournaments, lack of media attention and politicisation of sports administration.

Lack of money 

Most Indian athletes struggle to afford the necessary equipment and training. Many Indian athletes face challenges in securing consistent funding and sponsorship, which impacts their training, equipment, and overall preparation. The government, private sector, and NGOs need to collaborate to create sustainable funding models for athletes, ensuring they have the necessary resources to compete on a level playing field with athletes from better-funded nations.

Absence of Sports Culture

The absence of a robust sports culture results in limited interest, sponsorship, and investment in non-cricket sports. Unlike countries where sports are deeply ingrained in the societal fabric, India needs a cultural shift to prioritize and celebrate a diverse range of sports. Developing a broader sports culture can help create a pool of talented athletes and generate sustained interest in Olympic disciplines.

Insufficient infrastructure

One of the primary reasons for India's struggle in the Olympics is the inadequate sporting infrastructure. A few of India's best athletes claim they struggle to get the guidance, resources, and tools they require to train at a level that rivals any in the world. Many talented athletes in the country lack access to world-class training facilities, cutting-edge equipment, and experienced coaches. Countries with robust sporting facilities often have a competitive edge, enabling athletes to hone their skills and compete at the highest level.

Grassroots Development:

In India, there is a need for a more systematic and widespread approach to identifying and nurturing talent at the grassroots level. Sports education and training programs need to be integrated into school curriculums, providing a structured pathway for aspiring athletes to develop their skills from an early age. Building a strong grassroots foundation is crucial for sustaining long-term success in international competitions like the Olympics.

Not enough international tournaments

Indian athletes in sports like judo don’t have enough chances to hone their skills by competing at the international level. India's disadvantage was that we were way behind the world competition level.

The country is cricket crazy 

Cricket is king in India and takes the lion’s share of government funding and private-sector sponsorship. Gymnastics, for example, got very little attention until Dipa Karmakar, India’s first female gymnast to compete at the Olympic Games, came tantalizingly close to winning a medal in Rio.

Lack of media promotion 

India’s vibrant media companies leaving behind all other sports from soccer and field hockey to kabaddi (and of course cricket) hoping to attract millions of sports fans and advertisers who want to reach them. They have not shown as much enthusiasm about the Olympics.

Corruption and politics 

India’s sports administration is dominated by politicians and bureaucrats who have a hegemony to look at, leaving sportspersons’ interests to take a secondary place. The latest confrontation in the Wrestling Federation is a case in point. Similar incidents have been periodically reported from other sports federations.

Addressing the issues of infrastructure, grassroots development, sports culture mental conditioning, funding, bureaucratic hurdles, and international exposure collectively can pave the way for a brighter future in Olympic sports It's crucial for the government, sports bodies, corporate sector, and the public to join hands in fostering a conducive environment for athletes to thrive, bringing home not just medals but also a renewed sense of national pride.