Wealth and the Olympics

One of Megan McArdle's readers wonders why India, which in population is larger than any other country save China, has so few Olympic medalists.  I think the answer is fairly easy:  wealth.

It's a situation very parallel to the Italian Renaissance.  Then, the issue was the proliferation of so many great artists rather than athletes, but the fundamentals were fairly similar.  For a society to be able to give up its strongest and most talented youth to non-productive (meaning they don't contribute to food, clothing, or shelter) occupations like painting or competitive swimming requires a lot of wealth and leisure time.  Subsistence farmers can't give up a strong back from the fields, much less pay any kind of specialized training costs.  The explosion of artists in the Italian Renaissance was made possible
by an explosion of wealth in the great Italian city-states of Florence
and Venice and the like.   Further, wealth also means better neo-natal care and better childhood nutrition which leads to bigger and stronger adults. 

As with Renaissance painters, modern Olympic athletes need either a family that is wealthy enough to give up their labor and support him or her; or, they need a wealthy patron; or, they need support of the government.  US Olympic athletes generally have some of all three, though the role of the government is smaller than in other nations thanks to corporate patrons and the relative wealth of the American middle class.  China, and before it Russia, were successful because, lacking the first two, they had the government shoulder the entire burden.  India has chosen not to go the government route, which is fine.  It will have its successes in time, as the exploding middle class will raise kids who have the time and money to pursue excellence in various sports.

  • http://brcbanter.blogspot.com Craig

    Right. India doesn't feel the need to produce great athletes to prove its prowess as a nation, so they don't take kids away from home as toddlers to be drilled in a sport. India does have some pretty good cricket, though.

  • HTRN

    I think Craig is on the money - The difference isn't necessarily wealth, it's more a matter that China is a communist country(which can and does force people to be athletes), while India is not.

    As for relative wealth - India has GDP per capita of $2700, China is $5300(both according to the CIA). Admittedly, one is double the other, but both are extremely low compared to most first world Countries - Japan 33,600, UK 35,100, USA 45,800)

  • elambend

    India's first gold came in just they way you described. Successful businessman father providing the time and expense for his son to train in shooting.

  • http://herdgadfly.blogspot.com/ gadfly

    Actually the reason is simply insufficient time for athletic training. With the East Indians answering every help desk phone call 24/7 placed to consumer goods companies in the English-speaking world, there are no athletes, trainers or coaches available. :)

  • Francis

    India just does not have the sports infrastructure that China has. If there was an outlet then surely we will see more competition coming from India in international tournaments. The political system does make a difference but it by no way explains the huge dearth of medals for a country of over 1 billion people.

  • Jody

    I think it's wrong to assume that any sociological issues has a single cause.

    In this case, I think wealth matters, but is much less important than genetics (see Kenya and Jamaica), diet (meat helps muscle development a lot), and cultural.

    In terms of the importance of facilities, look at the large number of athletes who live in the US but are representing other countries.

  • Roy Lofquist

    My brother in law had two daughters who were gymnasts. It was god-awful expensive. The only pay-off was partial scholarships to a middle sized college.

  • Roy Lofquist

    My brother in law had two daughters who were gymnasts. It was god-awful expensive. The only pay-off was partial scholarships to a middle sized college.

  • Roy Lofquist

    My brother in law had two daughters who were gymnasts. It was god-awful expensive. The only pay-off was partial scholarships to a middle sized college.

  • Roy Lofquist

    My brother in law had two daughters who were gymnasts. It was god-awful expensive. The only pay-off was partial scholarships to a middle sized college.

  • Steve

    Genetic inferiority

  • http://www.creativedestruction.com/ Sameer Parekh

    I am quite certain that vegetarianism is also a factor. A rich vegetarian is not going to be as successful as a rich omnivore. A rich vegetarian probably won't even be as successful as a poor omnivore.

  • Matthew Bohnert

    We were recently in Florence visiting the Accademe when I saw a similar point regarding the Renaissance painters. Many of those fellows (and they all were fellows, unfortunately) lived to be 70+ or 80+ years old in an age where the average life expectancy was about 35, I would guess.

    Clearly there was a differential in the inputs, and outputs, from those guys' lives that is quite measurable. The inputs were obviously a higher standard of living, increased attention from society and its leaders, and a host of other factors that were not bestowed on the population at large. The output was also obvious. I expect it to be the same with Olympic medal production, much in the way our host has pointed out.

    Matt

  • http://economiclogic.blogspot.com/ Economic Logician

    I discussed this topic on my blog a week ago. It boils down to wealth, health and a cold climate. India does not have too much of each...

  • Roy Lofquist

    I apologize for the multiple posts. Happened when the dog chased the cat who jumped on the keyboard.

  • Rachel

    It is emphatically not genetics. In the cases mentioned, Kenya and Jamaica, purely physical gifts does seem to contribute to success in exactly one Olympic event (marathon and 100 meter dash respectively). But prolific medal winners (among countries) are those who can invest time and money in lifetimes of training.

  • Roger Veritas

    Money is a big part of the factor societal value is another. India has a strong caste system. In the upper caste is is probably strongly derided for a son or a daughter to engage in a physical activity when they should be getting an engineering degree. They could easily pay for and build facilities given their cost structure is on par with china. They have to decide they want to. Their biggest social competitor is Pakistan and they(Pakistan) probably don't permit scantily clad swimmers, spandex clad skiers - shooter and suicide bombers maybe. So until Pakistan embarrasses them in a lot of Olympics they will eat their curry extra hot.