As the London Olympics draw to a close, punditry on what the medals table says about the world is flowing thick and fast. At the Financial Times, Matthew Engel argues, with a touch of hyperbole, that if China tops the U.S. for the first time without home court advantage “it will be a turning point with a resonance far beyond sport.” Reihan Salam of The Daily contrasts the centralized, state-driven Chinese approach to athletics with America’s bottom-up, entrepreneurial model. And in the Indian Express, China scholar Minxin Pei pulls back the curtain on Beijing’s “winning is everything” strategy.
When it comes to Olympic success, Asia’s other behemoth, India, looks less like an elephant and more like a shrimp. As of Thursday it had won four medals, compared with America’s 82 and China’s 77. But, as I argue in the Wall Street Journal Asia, India’s unimpressive performance conceals a larger truth: since the advent of economic reforms in 1991, India has witnessed a slow but unmistakable upswing in its sporting fortunes. (Four medals is four more than India managed in three successive Olympics between 1984 and 1992.) As incomes rise and the private sector becomes more involved in athletics, India ought to continue to claw its way up from the bottom rung of the medals table.
The link between India’s Olympic performance and economic performance also highlights a larger truth. When compared with its own dismal past–hobbled by four decades of socialism–India looks better than ever. But even a cursory comparison with powerhouses such as South Korea or China shows that India is still playing catch-up with the world. In short, to achieve its economic potential India can’t afford to coast. If anything, it needs to run faster than the competition.