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Citius, Altius, Fortius

Olympics Final Sports

Olympics Final SportsWomen singles’ Olympics final. Game One. Did you see that? I’m sure you did. Pusarla Venkata Sindhu is trailing 15-17 to Spain’s Carolina Marin. The grit of a tall, gangly, demure 21-year- old, desperate to reach where none of her ilk had, against the athletic supremacy and blazing confidence of a flamenco dancer, who happens to be the best in the world in her chosen sport. One, an anomaly in a nation steeped in mediocrity; other, a trailblazer in a country that has produced such sporting marvels as Miguel Indurain, Xavi and Rafael Nadal.

It started at Sindhu trailing 15-17, that 52-shot rally played in just about 48 seconds. That’s less than a-shot-a-second. Marin smashed, Sindhu lunged; Sindhu dropped, Marin dived; crosscourt smashes met deft wrist-twirls, raw power met feline grace, net play versus net play, punch for punch, pound for pound, power for power, grunt for grunt. Relentless. Merciless. In Rio, the arena gasped. In India, the once-in-four-years sports aficionados watched with disbelief. You could almost hear a dude in Delhi muttering to himself, “This madrasan can play.”

Yes, she can. And play, she did.

There’s a ubiquitous, almost monotonous refrain when we place ‘sports’ alongside ‘teachings’. Sports build perssona. Check. Sports teach grace in win and loss. Check. Sports give life lessons. Check, check, check. The magnetic charm of the sport, the engine of its driving force, the crux of its core, however, lies in something that goes beyond this veritable essence. It rests comfortably in that ephemeral moment where it transcends the present and transforms its watchers, practitioners, observers and chroniclers into a state of trance. Magic? Intoxication? We would never know. But when one watched Sindhu dissecting Wang Yihan and Nozomi Okuhara, we, the uncaring, dispassionate, casual appreciators of sports, begin to build lofty hopes on shaky, selfish grounds. And that’s what Olympics teach us. Every four years, they teach us to believe. They implore us to appreciate the limits of human endurance and will- and maybe test and stretch them too. They help us dream.

There’s arguably no better joy than watching an athlete in her/ his visceral glory. David Rudisha of Kenya became the first man in 52 years to retain his 800m gold at the Olympics. Kenyans winning races is not surprising, but consider Rudisha’s back story for a while. Rudisha won the 800m in London Olympics in a world record time of 1 min 40.91 seconds. It’s a race that many believe is the greatest race ever run, what with seven participants clocking their personal bests, and two among them breaking their respective national records. None, however could catch Rudisha, who ran a race so punishing that Nijel Amos, the silver medallist from Botswana, had to be carried off from the finish-line on a stretcher. Sebastian Coe called it the finest race he had ever seen. Soon, however, Rudisha was besieged with a string of injuries that threatened to dent his aura. His knee creaked, his calf gave way, he went under the knife, he missed the 2013 World Championships. He could be forgiven for harbouring an iota of self-doubt as he took his mark in Rio. Yet, when the gunshot was fired, he left all of that behind. He ran to conquer history and doubts, competition and the world. In 1:42:15 minutes, he did.

In Jamaica, people are oblivious to Caribbean cricket team playing a Test series at home. Jamaicans are proud people. They seek respect. One man guarantees them respect. He is Usain St. Leo Bolt. ‘The Lightening’ is out to do what no one has managed before. It’s almost certain that he will win. He has courted greatness long back; he demands immortality. He has won 100 and 200 metres, and he needs to win the 4x100m relay to complete a hitherto unknown ‘triple-triple’. Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake and Nickel Ashmeade are there to help him. Bolt, almost theatrically, is slotted to run the last lap. He is itching to get the baton. What if he drops it and disqualifies? What if he trips? What if he loses? What if he freezes? What if he is human? What if his teammates are having a bad day? What’s going on in his head? How is to wait for punishing 30- odd seconds, watching his fate change hands thrice over? And yet, when he eventually gets the baton, he charges like an unstoppable surge of naked energy and unquestionable inevitability. At one moment he is with the herd; next, his giant, perfectly-sculpted frame rises with molten fluidity, now he is in the lead, now he is unbeatable, now his giant strides kick-in, now is the moment. He points ‘three’ to the world and claims, “I’m the greatest.” Not since Mohammad Ali had the words rung so true. He has left Jamaica, and the world, drooling. Has there ever been a more perfect embodiment of human anatomy?

Perhaps, there is, albeit not on land. Michael Phelps rules the pool. He has 28 medals to prove that- 23 of them are gold. He has returned from retirement. He has borne the scrutiny of being involved in drunk driving. Like Bolt, he has owned greatness for a while. He is already an immortal. What made him return? What has he left to prove? Perhaps, at the highest level, he seeks the most basic reason to pursue sports- joy. You don’t get his glimpse. The giant torso tells you of the hours spent in gym and in pool, but the eyes are behind goggles. He wears just a cap and swimming trunks, yet he has very little to reveal. All you see is a well-oiled machine tearing through still water. The thin sheath of water that covers him is enough to hide his doubts and tension.

What do you, the viewer do? What do you hear? Is it your heartbeat, is it the delirious crowd, is it the high-on-hormone commentator, is it your phone? What is it? It’s all of these and none of these. It’s the building of a perfect crescendo towards a perfect climax; the noise, the opponents, the tension reach a point where all of it simply ceases to exist. You hit a zone with your hero. For those fleeting seconds, when your man performs his opera in front of its gaping, baying, cheering, aghast, awash, drenched, thirsty audience, he no longer remains a sportsperson. He is sport. He is magic. He is hope. He is you.