The athlete crouches, nerves on edge and body taut, and awaits the gunshot. What the athlete does after the crack of the gun is a culmination of four years of toil, blood & sweat. Most often, it ends in tears. Often, because among hundreds, in any one discipline, there are just three steps on the podium to occupy. Tears, because there may not be another chance. Ever. The next Olympic Games are 4 years away, and that is a lifetime for an athlete.
This is the greatest spectacle on earth. It is the most equaling of all competitive sporting events. A middle distance runner, on whom a developed country has invested millions of dollars to get his training right, loses to the athlete whose middle distance training in sub-Saharan Africa was running 10 kilometers to school every day as a child. There’s no money for a winner. There’s a piece of metal to be won that no amount of money can buy.
I also like the Olympics because it is a melting pot of the greatest sporting talent on earth. 206 countries will participate and over 10,500 athletes will represent these countries at Rio 2016. It will be played out across 28 Olympic sports. 306 sets of medals will be up for grabs. That also means that over 9,500 athletes will not step on any podium. Most importantly, the Olympics serve as an amazing epiphany that every sportsman is just as important as the other. The multi-million dollar winning tennis player will get a gold medal if he wins and so will the obscure fencer whose face we cannot see behind that protective mask.
The Olympics are a poignant reminder that there are geniuses in sports that might be alien to many lands. Where else would we have seen the gravity defying pole vaults of Yelena Isinbayeva? Where else would we have seen a Nadia Comaneci do a backward flip and land perfectly on a beam that is the width of our palm? Where, on earth, would we have seen Michael Phelps cut through water, all the while making us wonder if this person, resembling Homo Sapiens, had fins and gills?
The darkest side of man is revealed in these games too. Some spoke of this being the testing lab for proving Aryan supremacy, a Canadian called Ben Johnson (and countless others) took drugs to compete, some innocent Israeli athletes paid with their lives in Munich because some Palestine terrorist group called Black September decided that these people were symbols of problems in their part of the world.
Yet, what stands out due to the Olympics is the fact that we get to see the commitment the human race is capable of. We read of Olga Korbut who counted sips of water during practice. We heard of athletes who would refuse to shake hands for the fear of catching germs. And, we’d hear of Natalie du Toit. She missed qualifying for the 2000 Sydney Olympics narrowly, and then met with an accident that made amputation of her left leg necessary. In 2008, she qualified for the Beijing Olympics after training herself to swim with just one leg. We get to know of Karoly Takacs who lost his right hand in a grenade explosion, trained himself to shoot with his left hand, and shot at the Olympics. Yes, he shot gold but even if he hadn’t won anything he’d be a winner, for refusing to accept the cards that life dealt him with. Innumerable stories of such heights that the human race is capable of reaching out to are brought forth by the Olympics.
What also comes forth, with an inescapable surge, is seeing these women and men live the moment because for many deserving athletes, there is just one Olympic Games in their lives. Just one race, or one throw, or one shot, or one row. It is tough for athletes to sustain their peaks and remain competitive for 8 years straight. Which is why the Olympics make our minds boggle at the mention of Steve Redgrave. A man who won 5 Olympic Golds - 13 less than Phelps, 4 less than Larisa Latynina, Pavvo Nurmi, Mark Spitz & Carl Lewis, and 3, 2, 1 less than 29 other athletes – but he won these five golds in five different Olympics. He rowed himself to these golds, in the pinnacle of all sports gatherings, for twenty years in a row.
So come August, let’s count ourselves lucky to be seeing this august gathering. In years gone by, the Olympics have seen a limping, bleeding & bandaged marathoner hobbling into the arena to complete his race and saying ‘my country didn’t send me 5000 kilometers to start a race, but to finish it’. Olympics have seen people honour the true spirit of sportsmanship, like Luz Long giving his biggest opponent, Jesse Owens, a tip that would make the man out-jump Luz for the gold medal. We will see women & men raising themselves to be more than what they are and, perhaps, inspiring a few of those who watch them to raise themselves up as well.
We'll get to behold the greatest social force in the world, for the road of the Olympics, as Jesse Owens said, leads – in the end – to the best within us.