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OP-ED: No medals for you!

  • Published at 09:38 pm August 13th, 2021
Brazilian canoeist Isaquias Queiroz Dos Santos shows off his gold medal in San Paolo REUTERS

What explains Bangladesh’s lack of Olympic success?

As the Olympics wind down in Tokyo, people of Bangladeshi descent are reminded again of a very unflattering fact: Bangladesh remains by far the biggest country which has never won a medal in the Olympics. Truth be told, it has never come close. 

For those of us who remember well the promise of Saidur Rahman Don’s entry into the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics as the first Bangladeshi participant in the world games, well that promise has been just that, promise that is nowhere close to be fulfilled.

A learned friend of mine who is professor in Dallas has cogently posited that if cricket, a non-Olympic sport, is set aside as an anomaly, then the deficit of one or both of the catalysts for Olympic success --state intervention and the place of sports in education -- explains much of this phenomenon. To this, I add a third catalyst -- mass culture -- to provide a bit more of the explanatory power.

Authoritarian regimes who reap success at the Olympics -- think China, Cuba, the former East Germany, USSR/Russia, the Gulf sheikhdoms -- have governments that are ready to invest the resources, power, and will of the state to groom athletes from a tender age and, if needed, import others from abroad in lieu of naturalization. For such regimes, success at the Olympics is part of concentrated and continuing effort at projecting their relevance on the world stage. Investing in top class training facilities, expensive coaches, and handsome remuneration for athletes during and after their active sporting careers is part, thus, of broader foreign policy objectives.

In countries far less endowed with resources and saddled with governments that can barely manage through the longitude and latitude of multiple tribal polities, mass culture comes in handy. Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya come to mind foremost as dominating individual running events, a sure outgrowth of both physiology and a culture where generation after generation of children literally running to and from their schools each day is par for the course. 

Other African counties with similar features have shown promise in track and field events at the Olympics too. These are, of course, niche attributes, in that a simple individual activity like running or walking or swimming just happens to be already mapped wholly into an existing Olympic sport.

For the rest of the world, rich or modest, ultimately it comes down to the place of sports in the education system, from primary through the baccalaureate levels. In much of South Asia, that place is almost non-existent outside of a few elite schools. What goes for optional “physical education” in the schools and colleges from one end of the sub-continent to the other is a joke at best, with barely qualified teachers trying their best to get through an hour-long slot on the schedule as fast as possible, with the awkwardness of gender-segregation underlying it all. 

Outside of the dedicated Nirman School Cricket competition -- which has been important in making Bangladesh into a cricket power -- there is very little sustained, methodical programming in fostering a sports culture as an integral part of education in Bangladesh. The most modest American or European high school will have gyms, fields, and coaches for several sports to train athletes for inter-school, regional, or national competitions year-round just as they prepare students for academic success with classrooms, laboratories, and qualified teachers. 

In Bangladesh, or for that matter India or Pakistan or Sri Lanka, the sporting ethic is considered a drain on the academic enterprise, instead of a vital complement to it. I guess, such is to be expected in a myopia where the only accepted markers of middle-class academic success are newly minted doctors, engineers, and bureaucrats.

The harsh reality is that barring the occasional golfer, shooter, or archer who gets lucky to train abroad or have generous patrons at home, Bangladesh has no real infrastructure for grooming sportsmen and sportswomen in a sustained, regular, spontaneous manner. 

Nor does it have much of a sporting culture beyond the kabaddi and similar traditional games. The few facilities like gyms and playing fields that exist are rarely maintained and often encroached upon by land grabbers affiliated with the ruling party of the day. A vast majority of schools, colleges, and universities consider sporting activities to be entirely superfluous if not out outright facetious. 

This state of affairs is not what Olympic dreams, let alone Olympic medals, are made of.      

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and writes from the USA. He can be reached at [email protected]

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