Rio Olympics: Why India was not a rank disaster

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India’s largest-ever squad to an Olympics, of 117, returned with two medals in Rio 2016, against six in London 2012. At the pinnacle of world sports, medals are one barometer of sporting performance. Another is standings: where a sportsperson finished vis-à-vis the competition. This is especially relevant for a fledgling sporting nation like India.

The data interactive below maps standings of Indian sportspersons in Rio 2016, and compares it to the previous five Olympics, dating back to the 1996 Atlanta Games, when India sent a 49-member squad and Leander Paes in tennis was the sole medal winner.

Beyond the medals, 2016 is not the unqualified catastrophe it is made out to be. At an overall level, the number of top 10 finishes fell from 28 in 2012 to 21 in 2016. But this was largely on account of just two sports: boxing and tennis. Similarly, between ranks 11 and 20, the count fell from 28 to 24, but the losses are scattered across sports (archery and rowing) and sprinkled with the occasional gain (wrestling and tennis).

Prominent sports in which Indians competed can be placed in three buckets.

Clear advances

There was badminton, which delivered a medal and demonstrated depth. There was Dipa Karmakar: the first Indian gymnast at the Olympics since 1964, the first Indian women ever and who missed a medal by not much.

Clear retreats

The biggest losses were registered in boxing: the number of top 10 finishes dropped from six in 2012 to two. There was table tennis, where all four Indians lost in the first round. There was weightlifting, where India is down from a medal and two more top 20 finishes in 2000 to just one top 20 finish in 2016.

Close to call

Most sports were close to call, which runs contrary to the narrative of Rio being a disaster for India. Among the large-squad sports, shooting returned two fewer medals than 2012, but had more performances in the top 10 (4 versus 3) and the same number of performance in the top 20 (11).

In athletics, the number of top-20 performances fell from six in 2012 to four in 2016, but there was a cluster of nine athletes who finished between 20 and 35 (against five in 2012). In tennis, India’s mixed doubles team came closer to a medal than in the previous two Olympics, but the rest of the squad made earlier exits. In archery, fewer Indian competed, but posted better overall results.

Use the interactive below to see how India has fared in 13 sports in the last six Olympics.


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Where PV Sindhu scored and where men’s hockey didn’t


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Standing just a centimetre short of six feet, silver medallist P.V. Sindhu was the tallest player in the women’s individual badminton event at the Rio Olympics. At 21 years, she was also one of the youngest. Sindhu weighs the same as Saina Nehwal, but the latter carries the same weight on a frame that is 14 cm shorter. For Sindhu, one of the rare Indian bright spots in Rio, that alchemy of reach, lightness and youth worked in her favour. Physically, she was well-matched compared to her rivals.

Sindhu was the tallest player in women’s singles

Sindhu was a rare instance of an Indian sportsperson matching up well physically against their competitors. In most cases, Indians don’t size up well against their rivals, shows data on height and weight from the official website of the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Take the Indian men’s hockey team, which was tipped for a medal. Its average height of 1.77 metres made it the shortest among the 12 teams in the competition—7 centimetre less than Germany, the tallest squad. With an average weight of 73 kg, it was the lightest—7 kg less than the leader, once again Germany.



Indian men’s hockey was the shortest

Height and weight matter differently in different sports. In hockey, for example, the sport has moved from an emphasis on dribbling skills—in the penalty shootout in the women’s hockey final between Germany and Netherlands, nine out of 10 players failed to beat the goalkeeper in a one-on-one situation—to speed and aggressive body play.

Studies have shown that players have an arm span 5 cm more than their height and a stride length on synthetic turf of 1.35 times their height, and they take two strides per second. A rough calculation, built on these numbers and the average height of the hockey teams at Rio, shows that, all else remaining equal, that height disadvantage resulted in the Indian player being 0.217 seconds slower than his German counterpart over a distance of 27.5 metres (between the top of the shooting circle and the half line).


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Why swimming beats athletics in world records hands down

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Six world records have tumbled so far in swimming at the Rio Olympics. When track events in athletics get off the blocks on Friday, chances are, they won’t match the world record count in the pool.

In the last 40 years, for every world record run by an athlete on track, swimmers turned in two in the pool, shows an analysis of 929 world records across 62 events in the two sports. Even in terms of time erased, the comparative figure is similar, especially among men.

The data interactive below traces the progression of the world records in each of these 62 events since 1 January 1976. All world record timings have been rebased to 100 to enable comparison within an event, as well as across events, though the latter involves many more nuances.

This 40-year span saw two periods when extraneous circumstances directed a blip in sporting performance. The first was the 1970s and 1980s, and East Germany’s systematic doping programme. It is telling that 25 years after ceasing to exist following its reunification with West Germany, East Germany still has the highest number of world records in women’s track and the second highest in women’s swimming in this 40-year period. And nearly 75% of all women’s track records of the last four decades were set in this period.



The second was the advent around the year 2000 of full-length body suits in swimming, which reduced drag and enabled swimmers to float better on water. These suits were banned in competition in 2010.

However, the imprint of both these periods is still visible in the longest-standing world records. For example, in women’s athletics, the 800 metres mark is held by Jarmila Kratochvílová of Czechoslovakia (set in 1983), the 400 metres by Marita Koch of East Germany (Set in 1985) and the 100 metres by Florence Griffith-Joyner of the US (set in 1988).

If swimming is a fount of world records, there are events in track where little has moved. Like the 400 metres, where Lee Evans set a time in 1968 in Mexico City altitude. Only twice has that been lowered since, and only 1.55% have come off it. Use the interactive below to compare by time, gender, sport and event.


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Why the population share of Muslims in India falls with age

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The population share of Muslims in India drops as they age, according to Census 2011. While Muslims account for about 17.3% of the population below four years of age, their share plummets to 12.3% in the 40-44 years age group and below 11% after 65 years. In contrast, Hindus and Christians don’t show such a decline with age. And this trend holds across the top six states by Muslim population.



Data from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), the government body that conducts surveys on various aspects of the life of Indians, shows that, in 2011-12, compared to Hindus, a greater percentage of Muslims in urban areas spent less than Rs1,757 per month—the lowest expenditure band in the survey.

Lower spending, the likely result of lower incomes, means less access to nutritious meals and healthcare, and therefore shorter lifespans.

According to Census 2011, about 40% of Muslims live in urban areas, compared to 30% Hindus. However, any hypothesis that Muslims, on average, die at a younger age than other religious groupings, fails if we go by rural incomes: an equal percentage of Hindus and Muslims are at this lowest spending threshold of Rs1,075 per month.

The hypothesis also fails by a more direct measure: life expectancy. According to data from the International Institute for Population Sciences, in 2005-06, the overall life expectancy of Muslims was higher than the national average and that for Hindus. Even among the poor, defined here as those in the lowest wealth quintile, the life expectancy among Muslims was the same as the national average and higher than Hindus.

Could outbound migration be the reason? However, experts say, inbound migration among Muslims is more likely, which is one of the reasons for the overall growth of the Muslim population. Could it be that fertility rates are increasing? Again, broad trends show fertility rates coming down, though the rate of decrease is slower for Muslims.

A more plausible reason is how the Muslim share has grown over the decades. In 1950, Muslims made up about 10% of India’s population, according to a paper by Houssain Kettani titled Muslim Population in Asia: 1950-2020. Indian Muslims born around that time would be crossing 65 years now. And Census 2011 estimates the Muslim population above 65 years at around 11%.

Younger age groups for Muslims also show a similar correspondence to the overall Muslim share over the years. Overall Muslim share in the population, as per the same paper, has increased from about 10% in 1950 to 13.4% in 2010. Thus, it is more likely that this age-based decline in the Muslim share has less to do with death and more to do with birth: a construct of their overall population share increasing over the decades.


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