Going for gold in India
By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / August 23, 2008
IN WINNING India's first-ever individual gold medal, rifle shooter Abhinav Bindra said he tried to treat the Olympics as just another tournament. "If you think of the hype, the medal, your mind thinks of the Games as a dangerous situation," Bindra said. "The Olympics is a serious thing, but I don't want to take it seriously."
Bindra's attitude is instructive. In the final days of the Olympics, host nation and emerging industrial giant China competed with the resource-spoiled United States for first place in the medal count. Together, the two countries had won nearly 200 medals by yesterday. Meanwhile, India, the world's second-most populous nation, had only three. Now, no nation wants so little loot per capita. Bindra himself said, "With our depth of talent and expanse of people, I firmly believe India can be a world-class sporting power."
But as every American who ever needed computer support knows, India is the 100-pound weakling laughing all the way to the global awards stand. As China and the United States produce athletes in very different, yet equally obsessive ways - and as we treat college and pro athletes as demigods and allow our children to become enslaved to high school coaches and suburban soccer programs - India is producing brainpower.
According to its 2007 review of intangible assets of intellectual property, talent, and trained workforce, the consulting firm Brand Finance rates India as third in the world behind the United States and Switzerland. In the 2008 Global Outsourcing 100, five of the top 10 companies are Indian, as are one-fifth of all firms.
India obviously has barely touched its potential, still faced with vast poverty, corruption, and infrastructure needs. University of Michigan global management expert C. K. Prahalad this spring told Indian business leaders that if India, which is already producing 3 million college graduates a year, can educate the poor, it will have the world's largest pool of trained people power by 2022.
"I would like to see 500 million skilled technicians, and I think this is possible in the next 15 years," Prahalad said. "We need to create a capacity for becoming the education laboratory of the world. We also need to focus on our arts, science, literature, and heritage, strive toward creating an environment from which can emerge 10 Nobel laureates. We have won Nobel prizes in literature, medicine, physics, chemistry, economics, etc., and I don't see why we can't produce more such laureates.
"India needs to become a source of global innovations, by generating new businesses, technologies and new business models. To create these new models of innovation, we need to stress on education by making education affordable to one and all, without any lowering of quality. The bottom of the pyramid, 800 million poor Indians, can become a major source of innovations, if empowered with the tool of education. . . . With our people, culture, and the right mindset, we can and need to create [a] minimum 30 multinational Fortune 100 companies."
Notice that Prahalad did not say, "We need to focus on gold-medal winners in the Olympics."
It is not that India does not care about sports, as any cricket fan knows. Bindra returned home to instant celebrity. There is talk of India bidding to host the Olympics in 2020. But it is also interesting that the nation's first individual gold medalist also happens to be the 25-year-old chief executive of a company that makes controllers for computer games. While many half-educated American athletes retire into a fog to find meaning in the rest of their lives, Bindra wins the gold, then mints more gold as our children become zombies playing with his products.
Bindra wants India to do better in the Olympics but also issued a philosophical warning that sport is not the end all. "It's like being at the top of a mountain, you keep climbing and then suddenly there is nothing," he said. "It's just a kind of emptiness . . . now that you have achieved what you have worked all your life, it's just done. Life goes on."
Precisely by winning only one gold, the world's second-largest nation is showing us how life does go on.