The 2012 Summer Olympics Games were held in London in July-August over a span of 16 days. A total of 204 countries took part in the games, which is held every four years, beginning in 1896 in Athens, the capital of Greece.
Top five medal winners this year were the US, China, Russia, Britain, and South Korea, with the largest medal count of 104 for the US. China was closely behind at 87 medals. Both countries held the first and second ranks in terms of gold medals as well as the total medal count.
As usual, if we exclude China, Korea, Japan, and some former Soviet Republics, Asian countries were not in the limelight. India ranked 56th with 2 silver and 4 bronze, closely followed by Mongolia, with 2 silver and 3 bronze. Other five Asian countries won 2 or 1 medals but no gold.
The real Olympic heroes, however, were not the top medal winners but tiny countries such as Grenada and Bahamas that won gold. Both have just about 100,000 populations, equal to a small township in Nepal. Other Olympic heroes came from the modest-size African countries like Ethiopia (3 gold) and Kenya (2 gold), which showed their muscle power in athletics, mostly in long-distance running. Other Olympic heroes were Cuba (5 gold) and Jamaica (3 gold), which are small island countries in the Caribbean and isolated.
Nepal did its bit to show a presence in the Games with five participants. There were no expectations of Nepal winning a medal—India didn’t make it in a number of Olympics and five times larger Bangladesh hasn’t yet come even close to winning a medal—but, still, our Prasiddha Jung Shah showed a respectable performance in the 50m swimming event.
Nepali athletes participated in the Olympics Games for the first time in 1964 in Tokyo. There is an interesting account of Bhupendra Silwal—who passed away aged 77 in September—who represented Nepal in a running event but didn’t make it to the finish line on time to win a medal.
In an interview with BBC earlier this year, Silwal recounted his first encounter with an international sporting event—his running bid in the 1958 Asian Games. Silwal said that he ran the race barefoot because his sponsor—Nepal Army—didn’t buy him shoes, and his commanding General ordered him to run barefoot.
The story is that he ran the race alright but his feet got stuck in asphalt and he fell down. He then tried to free his feet from that muck, but to no avail. Then help arrived to free him from asphalt. The needle used to remove asphalt bloodied his feet and kept him out of the Games.
For the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the army did buy him a pair of snickers but he said they didn’t fit well and, moreover, that kind of shoes were used in competitive running. He still came seventh but, looking back, he observed that if given quality shoes of the type London Olympians wore, he would have made it in the first place!
If Nepal is to get serious about the Olympics, it needs substantial financial commitment and assurance that money will be well spent.
Almost half a century has elapsed since the Tokyo Olympics but it appears that Nepal’s preparation for the Games hasn’t improved a bit. There has been no seriousness about winning at the Olympics. Our presence at these Games has been symbolic, not substantive.
The other feature of our participation in the Olympic charade has been the disappearance of our athletes on the way to the Games—during or after. This eventuality came to light during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when, reportedly, most of the Nepali participants to the Games—about 20 of them—disappeared and were not found until much later.
We do not quite know how or whether Nepali athletes are trained for the Olympics; what kind of budget they work with; and how they go through the selection process. In the absence of such transparency, it wouldn’t be reckless to argue that Olympic Game privileges are bestowed on a selected few. They share the reward with those in the decision-making and with a close-knit group. Also, the selection of candidates for international sporting events isn’t inclusive and a national level vetting process doesn’t exist.
A WINNING STRATEGY
Should Nepal target winning a medal at the Olympics and, if so, how? Looking at the country’s topography, climate, and mix of cultures, we can tap on the innate abilities and specialized skills of its diverse population. For example, for sports calling for high-level of endurance and motor skills—rowing, rafting, bicycling, athletics—these can be developed and practiced in temperate hill regions, while spectator sports, like soccer, basketball, volleyball, swimming, will be more suitable for the plains. Admittedly, it is hard to be objective about regional specialization of sports but, surely, the argument is consistent with finding a niche wherever such opportunities exist.
The next priority consideration is financial resources needed to train Olympic athletes. Reportedly, Great Britain spent US $1.3 billion to train athletes for London 2012, resulting in an impressive haul of 29 gold and 65 medals in total. Similarly, New Zealand stealing a march over Australia in 2012 is attributed to generous funding for the training of its athletes.
What kind of money our athletes would need to prepare for next Olympics? I do not think any such a calculation has been made and also that past spending on Olympic events provides no guide. First, competing in the Olympics hasn’t been considered a worthwhile investment because of the perception that Nepal will never win a medal. Second, money made available for the Olympics has been misused, under political patronage and for the reason of outright greed.
Therefore, if Nepal is to get serious about the Olympics, it needs a substantially larger financial commitment and assurance that money will be well spent.
To make the Olympic bid focused and affordable, it would be wise to limit the number of sporting events Nepal will participate in. We then make a budget allocation of one billion rupees each year for the next four years, to be spent on each event we choose to participate in. Ideally, we should choose no more than 10 sports categories in which Nepal is believed to have a comparative advantage. We then choose 1,000 athletes in a nationwide competition, using objective criteria and merit points. We can target sending 100 of the 1,000 athletes selected initially for the training.
There is no assurance that we would succeed at the Olympics the first time we make serious financial commitment, with serious resolve. But our athletes deserve a chance to show their prowess in the international arena that offers a rare opportunity for Nepal to get recognition that it deserves.