Just what makes a country a global sporting success?
Is it Olympic medals? Winning the FIFA World Cup? Is the answer instead in a strong domestic competition — even if it’s a sport virtually no-one else in the world plays?
Or is all this chasing glory distracting us from where our money should really be spent?
Let’s look at India.
It has a population of more than 1.3 billion, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and more than 100 billionaires.
But at the last Summer Olympics it won just one silver and one bronze. It’s only won two gold medals in the last 50 years.
Australia won 29 medals at the last Games. Aussies have picked up 96 gold in the last 50 years.
The two countries have in common a colonial past and dominate in cricket. Both have massively popular domestic competitions in sports few other countries play — in Australia, AFL. In India, kabaddi — but more on that later.
The post-colonial hangover
Simon Chadwick, the director of Eurasian sport at business school emlyon, says given how increasingly powerful and outward looking India is, its Olympic record is puzzling.
“I’m often left mystified by India’s relative lack of success in global sport,” he tells ABC RN’s Sporty.
“In terms of population size alone, that’s a very poor Olympic medal return.”
He argues while the country could be a major player, it’s too inwardly focused.
Bangalore-based sports journalist Sharda Ugra says India’s lack of success at the Olympics hurts.
“For a long time, Indians were very apologetic about what we were — they had self-esteem issues, let’s say. It’s a post-colonial hangover,” she says.
“Once the Indian economy opened up in the 1990s that changed public perception of themselves, but you want to see that represented at a global level.”
She says poorly managed sports governance in India is largely to blame — the exception being the juggernauts of cricket’s India Premier League (IPL) and the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL).
But she says people are finding pride and self-confidence in those massively successful local competitions.
“Maybe there’s a generational shift in the kind of sports watchers and participants, that there are spectators and people who invest money in Indian sport,” she says.
“Maybe there is a change, that they are now far more confident about saying ‘It’s OK’.”
Matthew Nicholson heads the Centre for Sport and Social Impact at La Trobe University.
He says Australia’s focus on domestic sports that are either Commonwealth only (cricket and netball) or unique to Australia (AFL) hasn’t hurt our international performance too much.
“There were a series of events in Australia’s history that perhaps allowed us to capitalise on our sports performance and punch well above our weight.”
He says the poor performance at the 1976 Montreal Olympics — which lead to the creation of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) — spurred the country into action.
“Had we have perhaps not had that failure, then maybe we would have just gone along, and not participated in international sporting landscape in the way that we have. The 2000 Olympics were clearly the crowning glory.”
What is India’s kabaddi?
In the game — described as a mix between tag and wrestling — a team of seven sends one of their players (the raider) into the other team’s side of the court to tag other players and make it back to their side without getting trapped.
The raider does this while chanting “kabaddi” — they’re not allowed to take another breath while on their opponents’ side.
There’s a lot of strategy and agility, tackling and dodging.
Ugra says the creation of the PKL has shaken off the sport’s “yokel image” — it’s now India’s second most popular competition, behind cricket’s IPL.
“It has just thrown everything else off the chart,” she says.
“Literally that was created out of just a television broadcaster and an entrepreneur who saw the potential and the simplicity of kabaddi — how easy it was to understand and how easy it was to televise.”
Ugra says the sport, which underwent some rule tweaks to better suit TV, now has a broadcast package more expensive than the country’s football league.
Chadwick says kabaddi is India’s “best kept secret”.
“I think kabaddi over the next five to 10 years is going to be really interesting to observe,” he says.
“Internationally and globally Indian influence in the global sporting environment I think may well rest upon the success of kabaddi.
“Huge amounts of money are now being invested into kabaddi and there are some interesting developments around TV rights for example.”
Win at what cost?
Chadwick says while other countries may win more Olympic medals, it comes at a cost
“There’s no rule out there in the world that every country has to be globally successful at sport,” he says.
“Within Scandinavian countries governments are much more focused on health and lifestyle and the participation of their populations in sport.
“You may not have those kind of big Norwegian sports stars that you would normally associate with say, the United States, what you do have is a very fit very active population.”
He says the UK’s government has created a sports system that’s essentially a medals factory — only the US won more gold at the Rio games.
But that “win at all costs mentality” is creating some serious issues.
“A lot of professional athletes are coming out and say, hey, there’s a bullying culture, there’s a culture of discrimination.”
Nicholson says Australia’s struggled to strike the balance between striving for international success and promoting physical activity.
“We have aimed for Olympic success, and world championship success, perhaps at the expense of participation and the expense of the general health of the population.”
He says elite sport policy and the AIS have had essentially unchallenged bipartisan political support for 40 years, whereas participation policies are at the mercy of election cycles and can change every three years.
“Australia has struggled to balance that priority and has a childhood obesity problem and an adult obesity and overweight problem as a result of not quite being in the Norway or Scandinavian camp,” he says.
“The peak being, the 2000 Olympics, really trying to focus on trying to get soft power outcomes through its events and its sporting successes.”
Chadwick says that’s a game he’s increasingly seeing nations playing — using sport to exercise soft power.
“Hard power is very much about conflict and intervention. Soft power is about using the power of attraction to engage different audiences around the world.”
He says Qatar is one country trying to turn sporting success into nation building, trying to use it’s FIFA World Cup to build “brand Qatar”.
“I think it’s very important to see sport not just as: we’re kicking a ball or we’re throwing a discus or we’re hitting a six,” he says.
“It’s about money, it’s about politics and it’s about influence around the world.”
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