By Anjum Altaf
In dealing with a problem, or a phenomenon in general, three steps are essential: identification, explanation, and prediction. Central to all three are the facts or the data that are employed in the analysis. It is the data that often proves to be the most problematic part of the process and confounds identification, enables misdiagnosis, and generates poor prognosis. And that, I will explain later, is why I care about games.
Identification is important because it specifies the issue one is interested in but personally I find explanations more fascinating. The same set of facts can yield multiple explanations – call them narratives or histories if you will – and it is an intellectual challenge to determine which of the histories is the most robust or the most impervious to criticism. Predictions don’t yield the same satisfaction if only because often one has to wait quite a while to find out which one turns out to be true. And even then, in real life one has little control over intervening factors that can facilitate the right answer for unrelated reasons. Quite often, the prediction itself leads to altered behavior that can lead to very different outcomes in some cases and self-fulfillment in others. However, predictions are unavoidable when there is danger that lack of timely action might lead to a catastrophe as is the case with the issue of climate change today.
Our best efforts are stymied, however, when the data is contentious as is the case with climate change. But even when the variables involved are much less uncertain, agreement on data remains a problem. Take something like the issue of poverty – there are disagreements on the definition of an indicator, its appropriateness in different contexts, its measurement, and its interpretation. The downside of these disagreements is that it enables people to sidetrack the entire process of identification, explanation and prediction. For example, people in country A can persist with their claim that country B has a greater incidence of poverty because they can dispute any data that you might furnish to resolve the issue.
This is precisely the reason why I am an advocate of using the results of games to construct explanations where possible. We can tie up the data end cleanly because the results are indisputable – anyone can go look up a video of the 100 meter dash at the Tokyo Olympics, for example, to verify the medal winners and the times they clocked. Because we remove the ambiguity at one end, we can focus on the more interesting task of constructing explanations or hypotheses based on the unambiguous data.
At the same time, I find it odd that people do not wish to utilize such a rich source of good data for analytical purposes and I suspect that part of the reason is precisely because they are unable to squirm out of the uncomfortable conclusions that such analyses might reveal. I grant that games are not the most important things in life but that is not to say that the results of games cannot indirectly tell us something about things that are important in life.
Not only is the data unambiguous, it captures systematic trends that help with both explanations of underlying structural changes in society and with predictions of where the changes are pointing. I have already used data from the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games to explore a number of hypotheses and in this post I will again use data from the latter to highlight an aspect of possible interest to South Asians.
The one story I felt was the most striking in looking over the record of the Commonwealth Games was the remarkable improvement in the performance of Indian women. The data is indeed striking. Look at the ratio of medals won by Indian women to the total number of medals won by India starting from the 1990 Games:
This is a remarkable transformation by any measure given that the upper bound is 50% (using the simplifying assumption that the number of events for men and women is the same which overstates the case because there are events for men, e.g., boxing and wrestling, that have no counterparts for women).
Given that this data is unambiguous and clearly not random, what is the narrative one can construct from it? I can suggest one that anchors the change in the transformation of the Indian economy starting in 1989, the rapid increase in the numbers of the middle class, the aspirations of this class for global recognition, the acceptance of global parameters of excellence and equality, the recognition of sports as one of these parameters, the resolve to be globally competitive, and the resulting reaching out for talent beyond the middle class itself.
This is an instance where a seemingly trivial analysis of games could point to a very important structural change in society that can have far reaching implications for the future. Of course, this is just one explanation or narrative and obviously some radically different explanations are possible. The point is not to claim exclusivity for any one narrative but to consider various explanations and debate their respective merits. Out of such discussion a finer understanding of the changes in society can emerge.
It is also obvious that the data shows no such change for Pakistan. Not only that, the performance of the men has also declined steeply as shown by the earlier analyses of the Asian and Commonwealth Games. So, it seems quite clear that the structural changes and trends in the two countries are headed in very different directions. Changes in Indian society are enabling its men to improve their performance and become competitive as indicated by the increase in the number of medals won over time. At the same time, and one can put it this way, a whole new nation of Indian women has found its place in society, and therefore in the economy, something that has no equivalent in Pakistan. Under the radar, the competition has become doubly more intense.
Pakistanis can keep quibbling about not being worse off in poverty and malnutrition but these are unambiguous results that are staring them in the face.
It was difficult and tedious to disaggregate the results of the various Games by gender and minor errors are possible in the tabulation. Nonetheless, the trend is quite robust and unlikely to be affected by the errors. I would like to thank Vikram Garg for collaboration in locating and tabulating part of the data.