India finished at the third position in the 2018 Commonwealth Games (CWG) held in Gold Coast. In the 2014 and 2010 CWG, India’s rank was fifth and second. India’s CWG success, both recent and historical, does not reflect in Asian games and Olympics though. This can be seen from a comparison of share of medals won by India in each of these games (Chart 1A & 1B). We have confined our analysis till the 2014 CWG and Asian Games and 2016 Olympics.
What explains this differential? In case of the Asian games, the explanation is simple: countries which perform better than India in Asian games do not participate in the CWG. For example, in the 2010 or 2014 Asian games, countries which were ahead of India (China, Japan, North and South Korea, Iran, Thailand and Kazakhstan) are not part of the Commonwealth. This simplistic answer however does not hold for a comparison of CWG with Olympics.
In the 2012 Olympics, Australia, Canada, Kenya, South Africa, New Zealand and Jamaica were ranked ahead of India. India performed better than all these countries (in terms of medals) except Australia in the 2010 version of CWG. In the 2016 Olympics, two more 2014 CWG participant countries in addition to the ones listed above, namely Malaysia and Bahamas, performed better than India. Except Australia and Canada, all these countries were behind India in the 2014 version of CWG. We do not include Great Britain in our analysis because England and Scotland participate separately in the CWG, while they go as Great Britain in the Olympics.
Why do some countries remain behind India in the CWG, but surge ahead in the Olympics?
One explanation is that India loses out on medals in several sports because of the participation of countries such as China and Japan, while these other countries (such as Canada) do not lose as much.
Another explanation may be the different set of sports in the two competitions. 2010 was India’s best performance in CWG. We put together the list of sports in which the five CWG participant countries which were behind India in the 2010 CWG, but performed better in 2012 Olympics, in the medal tally. The list comprises 13 sports: trampolining, rowing, swimming, canoeing, wrestling, diving, cycling, football, athletics, weightlifting, judo, sailing and equestrianism. Seven of these — trampolining, rowing, canoeing, football, sailing and equestrianism — were not included in the 2010 version of CWG. The point being, had these sports been included in the 2010 CWG, countries behind India could have got more medals than they did.
To be sure, there can be differences in sports events even within a broad category of sports. A 2014 Mint article attributed India’s drop in performance in 2014 CWG vis-à-vis 2010 CWG to a change in number of medals for grabs in sports such as shooting, wrestling and archery. Up to 16 gold, nine silver and 11 bronze medals from the total of the 38 gold, 27 silver and 36 bronze medals that India won in 2010 CWG were not on offer in the 2014 CWG, it said.
Another reason for the difference in performance of other countries vis-à-vis India in CWG and Olympics could be due to the fact that many top players do not participate in the CWG. For example, Usain Bolt (from Jamaica) did not participate in the 2010 CWG held in Delhi.
To be sure, India has been improving its performance in the Olympics in the recent period. India’s contingent in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics included 81 and 112 athletes each. Both of these were the highest ever for India. An athlete/team has to have a minimum competence level to be able to even compete in the Olympics. Increasing participation from India shows that more and more sportspersons from India are being able to meet these standards. This also reflects in India’s better performance in medal tallies in the last two Olympics compared to its overall Olympic performance, as can be seen Charts 1A and 1B given above. The higher share of gold medals in overall Olympic performance is due to the earlier dominance in Hockey.
Looking at absolute number of athletes is not the best measure of a country’s competitiveness at the Olympic level. This is because with each successive game, the total number of participants normally increases in the Olympics. To address this problem, we look at number of Indian participants as a share of total participants in all Olympics help post-independence. This value had a declining trend between 1948 and 1976. Post-1976, it fluctuated till the 1992 Olympics. After that phase, it has been showing an increasing trend except for two periods (Chart 2).
Clearly, India has been improving its sports performance overtime. However, it would take a lot more effort to convert participation into winning.