Is There a Connection Between Sporting Achievements and Scientific Advancements?

The medals tally shows that countries that do well in the Olympics have also done excellent work in the field of science and technology. What can India learn from this?

The men's BMX cycling quarter finals at the Rio Olympis. Credit: Reuters/Paul Hanna

The men’s BMX cycling quarter finals at the Rio Olympis. Credit: Reuters/Paul Hanna

As the excitement of Rio 2016 fades, an old debate is reignited in India: why is a nation of more than a billion people not able win even a single gold medal in the Olympics?

A close look at the medals tally indicates that countries that do well in the Olympics have also done excellent work in the field of science and technology. In Rio 2016, the US leads the medals tally with 121 medals, 67 of which are gold. They are followed by the UK, China, Russia and Germany. According to Thomson Reuters, the US also has the highest number of highly cited researchers in the world, followed by the UK, Germany and China.

Olympic medals tally

Olympic medals tally

Russia is missing from the list of highly cited researchers since over the long years of communist rule, dissemination of knowledge in journals was banned. This culture hasn’t seen much changed even after communist rule. But it is well known that Russia has been at the forefront of scientific development for a while, mainly in the fields of defence and space.

Top ten countries (based on the number of highly cited researchers)

Top ten countries (based on the number of highly cited researchers)

If one considers the total number of Olympic medals since 1896, the US leads the world with 2,401 medals followed by Russia, the UK, Germany and France. Their presence in research is also reflected in Nobel Prizes. The US, UK, Germany and France are the top four countries in terms of Nobel Laureates. They also figure in the top five list of Olympic medal winners. Again, Russia has lagged behind in winning Nobel prizes as their focus was on defence and space research, and there were severe restrictions on publications during communist rule.

Medals tally across Olympics (not including Rio)

Medals tally across Olympics (not including Rio)

An analysis of these numbers is an indication as to why India is unable to win a significant number of Olympic medals. Quite often, the analysis of our poor sporting performance is heavily geared towards blaming the government and bureaucrats associated with the sports ministry. We need to focus on our education, infrastructure, healthcare and universities in an integrated manner. Only then can we think of winning medals in the Olympics.

Explaining the link

It would be big surprise to many Indians that the US government provides no federal funding to the Olympic team. Its finances are gathered purely through generous public support. The US government then goes ahead to tax the medallists at the maximum tax bracket. The tax not only includes prize money from the Olympic committee but also on the amount of gold used in the medals! Now compare this with P.V. Sindhu getting more than Rs 13 crore from various governments for winning a silver medal in Rio 2016.

An additional aspect of the US is that a majority of students, more than 60%, graduate with student loans in the range of tens of thousands of dollars. Despite that, around 40% of Americans donate to their universities. This money is used for infrastructure and lab development, including for constructing good sports facilities. Now, it is no surprise that the total number of medallists from Stanford University and the University of California Berkley stand at 44 in the Rio Olympics. The count rises to 48 if one includes Katie Ledecky, who got four gold medals in Rio and will be starting at Stanford after forfeiting a $5 million sponsorship deal. The combined medals tally of the two universities gets them to fifth place in the global medals tally. They are also at the forefront of science and technology. Both universities have produced dozens of Nobel laureates in the past couple of decades and possess the highest concentration of living Nobel Laureates on their campuses.

As far as the UK is concerned, there is federal support at several levels to nurture talent. If some significant potential is seen, it is possible to get grants worth large sums of money. The Olympic training is supported by the National Lottery, so the government does not tax people for it directly. They spent £250 million to prepare for the 2012 London Olympics. For Rio 2016, they spent a total of £270 million. So each gold medal cost them about £5 million. However, training the Olympic team on average cost each person in the the UK 80 pence on average.

Another key aspect of the British sporting system is the huge amount of support it gives students through school and college. During my doctoral research at Cambridge, I noted that several students from the Department of Engineering were being trained for the Beijing and London Olympics, for events ranging from cycling to sailing. Students like George Nash emerged as Olympic champions, following on the tradition of Emma Pooley who got a gold in cycling. Pooley later returned to the academia to finish her PhD in geotechnical engineering from ETH Zurich.

Another key issue is scientific support. Jason Kenny from the UK has won six gold medals in Olympics cycling events. A lot of credit for his wins goes to a professor of engineering at Cambridge, Tony Purnell, who has played a key role in designing robust bikes under a secret programme called Room X. Each of the 14 members of the UK’s cycling team has won at least one medal in Rio 2016. Other sporting activities also find a lot of support from academics in terms of strategy formulation, which includes complex scientific and mathematical models. In most cases, the academics like to remain in the shadows and let the sportspeople take the limelight.

Does India look down on sports?

In the context of India, a student of an IIT or an IIM preparing for the Olympics is unthinkable as they are too busy preparing for campus interviews and class tests. The other, more serious problem is the lack of infrastructure at the school level. India is one of the countries that spends the least fraction of its GDP on education and healthcare. Sports is directly linked to basic education and healthcare. We are struggling to build toilets in schools. Then creating swimming pools and playgrounds, and hiring sports teachers, is still unthinkable in state-funded schools. Support from the public is minimal as we think that it is only the government’s job to provide funding to schools and universities. So the next time you see people cursing our sportspeople about Olympic medals, you should ask them how much they are planning to contribute to the school or college from which they graduated.

Despite all these issues, one question remains. There are quite a good number of private schools which advertise that they possess excellent infrastructure, sports facilities, swimming pools, teachers and trainers who visit from abroad. They charge high tuition fees from the public. They do not seem to have any role at all in creating Olympic champions, given the fact that we see medallists coming from the hinterland of Haryana or more remote areas of northeast India. The answer is simple. In most cases, the private schools create a large hype around the facilities which they possess. At one point of time, I was living in an apartment close to a campus of a famous public school where children of businessmen and bureaucrats were enrolled. They had three swimming pools and none of them had water. They had an equestrian club where all the horses were old and emaciated. The students would ride them and the caretakers would move them around at slow pace so that the horses did not drop dead.

An important issue here is that we look at sports as an unwanted extravaganza which can lead us to unemployment. Over the years, what I have observed is that a playground can be a great laboratory for learning science. You cannot learn turbulence unless you have played table tennis. The principles behind Bernoulli’s equation, fluid pressure and thrust do not become clear to you unless you have learned swimming. Euler’s equations on the dynamics of rigid bodies become clear only when you learn the art of manoeuvring a cricket bat. Similarly, you develop a practical understanding of relative velocity, vector addition and related aspects of solid mechanics only when you have played football. The fact is that our system of rote learning has no place for learning things from an empirical perspective. So parents think that playing is just a waste of time.

The final and the most important element is our corporate sector. In the US, the private sector not only supports science but also sporting activities. In India, the corporate sector’s role is negligible beyond cricket. Similarly, the private sector’s support to scientific research is practically zero barring a few investments in pharmaceuticals. To make matters worse, sports-based achievements are looked at with some kind of distrust. The corporate sector seldom looks at sporting achievements from the perspective of team-building, synergy development or conflict resolution. High grades on paper are still seen as most important. From that perspective, at least governments have done a good job of offering jobs to sportspeople who have played at the Asian Games level.

Several years ago, I was trying to give directions to a taxi driver to take me to a college in Delhi. He said, “I know the address, I am a graduate of that college!” As we reached the gate, he became emotional, “I was a part of the hockey team and played at the national level. Sports destroyed me”. Later that evening I met a friend, who told me about finding a stack of medals secretly hidden in his wife’s cupboard, several years after his marriage. She then told him with tears in her eyes, “I was a national level swimmer…my father told me, no one would marry you if you tell this!”

It is time to start a holistic dialogue on sports and science.

Dhiraj Sinha is a research fellow at the Singapore University of Technology and Design


    Relation between sports and science is intertwined. India is neither scientific not ‘ sportive’ : it’s science is mired in eulogising Vedas and sports in King’s battles if epics. Hence, it is difficult in producing large number of scientists or sportspersons. Further, the capitalist countries shared Nobel prizes by a biased nobel committees through the years. Communist country’s research was rarely recognised, let alone it’s literature or politics or social work. All the accolades are for a select few only.

  • The Wire

    Blaming our genes is not a valid argument. Sunil Laxman, from the institute of stem cell studies at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, has elaborated on this here: