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Nobel Prizes, Olympics and The Role of India

Ashim Bhuyan
(The Writer can be reached at

The Nobel Prizes were willed by Alfred Nobel and the Nobel Prizes started in the year 1901. The Nobel Prizes were initially awarded in five disciplines viz. Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and Peace. Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences was added later. The Nobel Prizes, undoubtedly, remain the most prestigious intellectual awards on this planet, and bear testimony to greatest contributions for the benefit of mankind made by the recipients in different disciplines. Nobel Prizes in various disciplines are decided by separate institutions which form assemblies to select the actual prize winners. The Prizes are given every year.

The Modern Olympic games started in 1896 at Athens in Greece, and have grown to become the biggest sporting extravaganza in the world. It is the display of physical prowess, skill, endurance in various physical and sporting events. The Modern Olympic Games were inspired by the ancient Olympic Games, which were held in Olympia, Greece, from the 8th century BC to the 4th century AD. Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894, leading to the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. The Olympic Games are considered the world’s foremost sports competitions with more than 200 nations participating. In the last summer Olympics held at Rio (Brazil), a group of refugee Sportspersons participated, without representing any country, but under the banner of the IOC. The Olympic Games are held every four years, with the Summer and Winter Games alternating by occurring every four years, but two years apart.

Five Indians (Indians by citizenship) have won Nobel Prizes in various fields as on date. They are: Rabindranath Tagore (in fact, he was the first Asian to win a Nobel Prize) in Literature in 1913, Sir CV Raman in 1930 for Physics, Mother Teresa (she was not born in India, but was an Indian by citizenship) for Peace in 1979, Amartya Sen for Economics in 1998, and Kailash Satyarthi for Peace in 2014. Incidentally, three of Indian origin (though not Indians by citizenship) were also awarded Nobel Prizes: they are Har Gobind Khorana in medicine/physiology in 1968, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (he was a relative of Sir CV Raman) in 1983 for Physics, and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan in 2009 for Chemistry.

In modern Olympics, India, till date, won 17 Individual medals. The one and only individual Gold Medal was won by Abhinav Bindra in shooting in 2008 in Beijing Olympics. India has won six individual Silver medals, including two by Norman Pritchard in Olympics of 1900 at Paris. He won the Silvers in 200 metre sprint and 200 metre hurdles. Post-independence, Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav won India’s first individual medal; a bronze medal in Bantamweight category in wrestling. Mary Kom won a Bronze medal in Boxing in flyweight category in London Olympics in 2012. Sushil Kumar is the only Indian to have won an individual medal in more than one Olympic Games. He won a Bronze in Beijing Olympics in 2008, and a Silver medal in London Olympics in 2012 – both in 66 kg freestyle wrestling.

India has, till date, won 11 Medals in Team Events in Olympics – all in field Hockey. A record 8 of these were Gold Medals.
In contrast, India has the highest population in the world, just behind China. The 3rd largest populated country is the United States. Yet, the United States has 368 Nobel laureates since its inception in 1901. The US is followed by the United Kingdom with 132 Nobel Prize winners, Germany with 107, France with 62, Sweden with 30, and Switzerland and Japan with 26 each. All these countries have much smaller population compared to India.

In Olympics (Summer Olympics), the United States, by far, is ahead. The USA leads with 2,520 medals between 1896 Olympics at Athens and 2016 Olympics at Rio. The US is followed by 1,865 Medals by Russia, Germany with 1,681, Great Britain with 847, France with 713, and Italy with 577. Our big neighbour China, a late entrant to Olympics, has won 543 Medals. Among the countries with higher share of Olympic Medals, again, all countries have much smaller population, with the exception of China.

Michael Phelps of the USA, alone has won 23 Olympic Medals with 19 Gold Medals, 2 Silver Medals, and 2 Bronze Medals, and this is more than the combined individual Olympic medals won by athletes who represented India till date.

While Olympics is an arena where the best of athletic and physical prowess are on display, the Nobel Prizes are the ultimate in intellectual prowess. In spite of having a very large population, India is miserably short in showcasing its physical and intellectual prowess in the world arena. Data shows that economic progress and human development made by countries is reflected in their representation in Olympic Medals and/or Nobel Prize winners.

We in India glorify our past and take pride in our civilization, which, we feel, is thousands of years old. However, our past glory is not reflected in the present state of affairs, especially in Nobel Prizes and Olympic medals. We are far too behind in global stage in this regard. The country has completed almost 71 years of independence. There are countries like Israel and China, which were formed at the same time when India became independent. Yet, these countries have made giant strides.

We are pathetically placed in the world forum, in general. Is this because we thrive on mediocrity? Is this because we were inward looking (Magasthenes, a Greek, Hueng-Tsang and Fa Hien, both Chinese, Marco Polo, an Italian, Tavernier, a Frenchman, Thomas Roe, an Englishman, Niccolo Conti, an Italian, Alberuni and Abdur Razzack, both Islamic travellers., travelled to India, whereas we do not have a single Indian, in recorded history, who travelled abroad, during the corresponding period)? Is this because we tend to not reward hardwork? Are we a very compliant nation, as a result of which we are not innovative, and stay put in our limited boundaries of thought and work?

We are also way behind in Human Development Indices, as per data made public by the United Nations. In fact, as per the available data, among the BRICS countries, India’s rank is the lowest. Even Sri Lanka, which was torn in civil wars, till some years back, is ahead of India in this regard.
Bhutan, as we understand, has invested heavily in education in the last decade or so, and this has boasted in improving the prosperity of its people in different parameters. Bangladesh, too, despite its unique and challenging issues, has made significant progress, compared to many other countries.

People in India, if they are honest enough, would agree that we have not excelled as much as those in many other parts of the globe. This calls for a lot of introspection by the policy makers, implementing agencies, Central and State Governments, and most importantly by the citizens of the country. Probably, the priorities of the country are misplaced.

Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher, had said long years back : “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit”. And, we in India need to ponder a lot on this.

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