Ours have proved to be dismally populist driven. Since the winning next election overwrites all other factors, there is hardly a long term vision. Nurturing talents for Olympics would take decades to see results, by then the incumbent would be out of power, thus there was hardly any inclination for such efforts.
Rio Olympics concluded on Sunday and we as usual finished with precious little to show in terms of sporting talent. That is the story of much of South Asia. India won just two medals, a sad indictment for a country of 1.2 billion. What do Olympics tell about us? South Asians are not ‘sporty’ enough? If then, with all respect to China’s medal winning swimmers, of its teaming masses of 1.4 billion, vast majority of them hardly ever venture into water.
Like its gymnasts, its swimmers are more a product of an institutional mechanism that picks the talent at as young as 3- years- old and train them through a punishing regime for decades until they are unleashed in one of those world championships. Biological factors could well work for some sports, for instance short distance running for decades is dominated by Black sportsmen and women and mid distance running by Kenyans.
Is poverty a factor that inhibits sporting performance? It is, but, when China first made the Olympic appearance in three decades in Los Angeles in 1984, then poorer than India in per capita GDP, it won 15 Golds and overall fourth place.
Or how can one explain stellar performance of Kenyans or Ethiopians, and failure of Nigerians, a country richer in comparison and numerous in people.
Biological factors and factors like relative wealth contribute at varying degree. However, Olympic successes are much more than that. They tell a great deal about the scope of the state, state priorities, state autonomy and all of which surmised to one: state power.
That was in fact given as the explanation for the success of authoritarian central planning states of former Warsaw bloc countries in the past or to a certain extent, China at present.
States define their scope differently; some are minimalist, just providing security and basic level administrative functions, while others are maximalist providing a wider bundle of welfare and other facilities.
But some maximalist states, rather than providing numerous free services, would maintain a greater social and administrative control, thereby retaining a greater capacity in resource mobilization. There is always a trade-off in mobilising resources, some driven by sheer populism, others by a dispassionate economic logic, and others in between.
So, we had “Hal Potha” (The rice ration) which drained the Government coffers, while some others shunned such ruinous expenses, instead, countries such as Singapore choose to subsidise university education and build infrastructures.
But, in planning the State policy, not all States have an equal level of autonomy from societal pressure. Decision makers of authoritarian states can do as they wish and tell the detractors to go and hang. Ours have hands tied.
However, to argue an authoritarian system would perform better than democracy is a broad generalisation. Every system offers their decision makers with opportunities and constraints.
It finally boils down to as to how the decision makers interpret those conditions and navigate around them, and set their priorities.
Ours have proved to be dismally populist driven. Since the winning next election overwrites all other factors, there is hardly a long term vision.
Nurturing talents for the Olympics would take decades to see results, by then the incumbent would be out of power, thus there was hardly any inclination for such efforts.
It was the story of much of South Asia which revolves around bread and butter politics. Team sports such as Cricket is a different business. It requires a culture to flourish and since every kid plays with bat and ball from the day he can walk, it provides a ready supply of talent. Even then the recent success of outstanding outstation cricketers is largely attributed to good coaches, which most schools did not have before.
(A striking example is my alma mater Richmond, which having narrowly saved from relegation couple of years back, came to win successive all island school championships, and sent players to the Sri Lankan Cricket pool. All that was after they got their new coach)
If the absence of a long term vision is limited to sports, it is still less of a problem. However, that is not the case.
Take for example our free education system, which predates our independence. We boast of our human capital, however, the lion share of our overseas remittance come from the unskilled and low skilled workers toiling in the Middle East.
We sent housemaids and drivers, not accountants, in droves. There is a miss-match between the promise and reality. The problem lies in the education system, but we hardly know what it exactly, nor do we know how our students actually fare with their counterparts in the world. We have never opted to an international comparison such as PISA Test.
See the contrast in places such as Vietnam, a country of 90 million largely rural populations, still emerging from the ravages of war and the cloak of Statism. Its students fare better than their counterparts in Rich Germany in science and comprehension in international tests. Those successes may also explain why Vietnam is fast climbing the manufacturing ladder.
Our policies to address our deficiencies are also largely populist. The Government agreed to increase the education spending to a six per cent of GDP after campaigning, which is a good thing.
However, without knowing where the problem lies in the system, that fortune could be squandered in flimsy projects in a country where politicians have an unholy interest in banning Sunday tuition classes, rather than training English and Science teachers.
Take for example our universities, which were once world class, but now languish in the rock bottom of international rankings.
What happen to the cream of our youth who pass out from science and engineering faculties and were since then forgotten? What R&D have we produced for all past decades? Another example, our transport, which has not qualitatively improved since the independence.
Money is not everything. See the contrast in Rwanda, a poor East African country devastated by genocide, which is now the second African State, after richer South Africa to introduce prepaid cards in public transport.
Throughout the history, success and failure in the countries in the international system are decided by two primary factors: competition and emulation.
States compete for power, wealth and opportunities and in the process they emulate successful practices of other States. We who are catching up with lost decades do not need to reinvent the wheel, but to borrow from the successes of others.
Years ago, when I was studying at the NTU, the government there asked the school to pick from two options as to what its future should look like: MIT model of a heavy research focus or Harvard with a more academic orientation. They picked the former, and if international rankings are any guide, they have done pretty well. Whereas our universities had serious reservations about adopting even the semester system.
At the end, all this boils down to the state power; its efficiency, scope and bureaucratic cohesion, all are attributes of the former. Perhaps we should look around and see how others do things successfully and try to take a lesson or two. Hopefully then, that success could trickle into Olympics as well.