The dismal performance of India in the recently concluded Beijing Olympics and the contrast with the exceptional performance of China, has been the focus of intense discussion and scrutiny. Explanantions have ranged from the absence of adequate facilities to the "un-sporting" character of the nation. Commentators highlight the Indian Olympic preparations which stand in stark contrast to the almost military discipline and focus behind the Chinese efforts. Here is one more possible explanation.
Most popular Olympic events - athletics, swimming, boxing, wrestling, gymnastics - carry very limited appeal for the Indian middle class, except as a spectator sport. I will stick out my neck and claim that not many Indian parents, even among those with some sporting inclinations, would willingly send their children to pursue a career in these sports. Even if they agree to their children pursuing sporting careers, they would prefer racket games, chess, and cricket. Adventure sports like sailing/canoeing and rifle shooting will always find enthusiasts among the burgeoning upper income class. Same with "lifestyle" games like golf, billiards and snooker.
The result is that the Indian representation in these popular Olympic events are predominantly from the poorer sections. This sets the stage for another example of the famous "poverty trap" at work - since participation in these events are dominated by the poor, public investments in them remain minimal! Further, these athletes are motivated by nothing more than a hope of getting a job on sports quota. Medals in Olympics and other international competitions are rarely ever an incentive driving these athletes, atleast during their initial formative years.
So the comparison between India and China (or the US) becomes superfluous and inaccurate. With the Indian middle class abdicating, the Indian Olympic delegation is a more accurate representation of the "poor" India than the country as a whole. A more meaningful basis for evaluating Indian sporting performance would be that in the aforementioned "middle class" and "lifestyle" games. The poor performance of the delegation is also reflective of the intense deprivation being faced by India's poor!
And as the Indian economy grows and the middle class expands, do not be surprised if there emerges more Arjun Atwals, Abhinav Bindras and Pankaj Advanis. Similarly there will be more of Saina Nehwals, Sania Mirzas, and Koneru Humpys, (the fact that all the three train in Andhra Pradesh should not be a surprise, for the state has in recent years emerged as arguably the most "sporting" state in the country!), not to forget Tendulkars and Dhonis! But do not expect Indian versions of Usain Bolts and Micheal Phelps in the foreseeable future.