It was bound to happen. Inevitably. Even a few days before we began attempting to achieve the impossible. The last two days we have all been trying to fill an Olympic-sized void in our lives. I deliberately use the collective ‘we’ here, trouncing the idea of safety singularity gives to what is a subjective and personal opinion. The ‘we’ represents the commoners as well as the gentry who celebrated at least one moment at the Olympic Games, stood up for a fraction of a second for that brief moment in time which left us breathless, panting, drenched in emotion, drunk on ecstasy, high or low at the existential realities playing out at a — metaphorically and spatially — distant place.
Well, we had more than one such moment at the Tokyo Olympics. I am not just talking about the seven medals won, or the narrow misses India endured at the Games this time around. The hint is toward the gems from the fortnight which constitute the necklace our grey cells have already strewn and deposited in the locker box upstairs for posterity. To be taken out every now and then and displayed to a yet to be envisaged post-pandemic future generation. This was the beauty of the Covid Games, we would say, holding it up. This was Tokyo 2020, staged in 2021. The stubbornness, or the strong will, we showed in sticking to the original year on record, a year that ushered in various pains and turmoil, is a thing of beauty too, of a different kind. It is a treasure, no less, a personal fortune.
The past two days... Well, mornings were spent pacing across the four walls of the little world I am part of while checking if, by an impossible shot, a live event of the Games was still being staged. A straggler that needed to be completed post the closing ceremony because it had been postponed for x, y or z reasons. Then again, do I even need a reason to search for the Olympics, search for live action, for something alive?
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Our persona gives us the right [and ability] to choose to justify things and be reasonable, or just be the nasty irritable middle-aged sports fan you have always been, even when you were a teenager. And you love to add more conflict to life. And the latest conflict is the carnal wish the Olympic Games lasted longer.
Luckily, the Paralympics need celebration in close to a month’s time. And, with all due respect to Neeraj Chopra, or all the champions Tokyo birthed, the triumph of the human spirit would be greater at the Paralympics. The strife and struggle are larger there and so is the athletic excellence. The victory, harder earned. Then again, why argue about the greatness of one Games over the other. Why harp over the intangible?
Because the larger meaning of the Olympic Games, the one that has left us in a void, is not tangible either. It is real, but the finer thread in its fabric is so surreal that we are unable to decipher and quantify it. Good that we can’t for that would be a huge disrespect to the Olympian, the ones who returned home without a medal. And they form the majority. And if majority is what defines this world, then the Olympics and their meaning will always be defined in uncertain terms, somewhat like the concept of heaven our religions try to sell.
The non-medalists gain quite a lot, arguably more than those who win. This, besides the tag of the Olympian that would define their lives from henceforth. But that gain can’t be measured, not by them, not by the establishment, not by writers or singers. What is an Olympian? Well, let’s leave that part undefined, like the not-so-specific reason why we grapple with a void when we have many more pressing matters to worry about.
Because, the void is surreal, and is real too. The Games do that to you, leave us in a split, with its sheer power to inspire awe.
No wonder, sport is the biggest arm of the PR spinning machinery of the powers there be — the government, the federations, the brands, the stakeholders. They understand the power in the Olympic movement, and thereby what the athletes possess. The average athlete never realises it. The irony. Let them run and throw and get medals. Let the PR and the spin be the preserve of the rulers.
The power of the Games is tangible in its effect. Like the definition of money we once rote-learnt at high school. “Money is nothing. Money is what money does,” the economics teacher repeatedly said in class, as we jingled the coin in our navy blue trousers. ‘Sport is nothing. Sport is what sport does,’ the establishment seems to say via brash statements, while jumping onto the accomplishment bandwagon. This while we still continue to jingle the small change left in our blue-collared bank accounts. These are the existential and very real economic realities we grapple with as big sport plays along on the side.
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The Olympic Games are an escape, yes. This statement is a cliche. Simply because, we are escaping back into reality, nowhere else. The Games are a measure of human ability and perseverance. The Games are also not a bubble far removed from life, though his edition was staged in a much touted one. Every athlete who was part of the Games have a backstory, some have tales of losses or gains, of deaths, some have been a refugee, have starved, or grappled with mental breakdowns.
These are all the realities we live with. And sport mirrors it and the Games tell us that even the alphas among us deal with it too, and still come out victors. So will we. The Games show us life and tell us not to escape it. They are drenched fully in realism, and that is why certain cliches need to be banished from the lexicon with which we try to chronicle the Olympics.
Tokyo — despite all its shortcomings, staged in the midst of a raging pandemic — is the most endearing Olympic Games ever. I will still put the collective ‘we’ here, and in case you want to debate, armed with a list of previous Games who are close contenders, I am more than ready for the fight, with the collective karma of 10,000 plus athletes who elevated the Games from a sporting spectacle to one that had a larger, realistic meaning.
All the world records were real. All throws are now recorded history, and all takedowns and knockouts, a chance to stand up again. We can find meaning in everything. We should merely look, beyond results and the record book.
This is just about the time we should take a deep breath, just to collect the thoughts for the longer race, a larger debate? A marathon, the most beautiful race at the Olympic Games.
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The Paris Olympics are less than a marathon away in terms of human time, just three years down the road. There are many sporting events that will be staged between now and 2024, including the Paralympics. There is cacophony, roller coaster rides and celebration that awaits in each of the events, which includes a FIFA World Cup, the Asian Games and other continental events, and countless world championships. There would be challenges too — with Covid-19 in the forefront. Add to that the new hurdle, the bleak picture presented by the scary economic reality that Tokyo 2020 is likely to give Japan, is a deterrent for all global mega events.
However, even when these factors and apprehensions are playing out, they also act as reminders that the Games we escape into amidst our daily chores are necessary.
We are all cocooned in our world, with a minority more privileged than the rest. Yet, be it good, bad, ugly or a paradise, our cocoons matter to us. The Olympic Games come every four years and break the shell of that cocoon enough to let the light in, and make us believe again in the power of the human collective, the only common noun we were born into. Rest all are, after all, artificially made.
So, behold the real Olympic Games, and the void they leave us with.
I am glad we were around this time — in spirit, words and deeds, to do our part, to let the lives be lit by the light the Olympic flame imparts. The meaning of the light became apparent only when it was doused at the closing ceremony Sunday.
What and how we experience is our individual choice (if at all we have a choice in such matters any more that is). We Indians, and in a larger sense, a considerable part of the world, were immersed in the Olympic experience for a fortnight, ending with the dousing of the flame at the Olympic stadium in the Japanese capital.
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The solemn moment and the dark shade of the melancholy in it can never be glossed over by the pyrotechnics that lit up the Tokyo sky moments afterwards. Fireworks after the real flame was extinguished. How futile. How human. How erred we are.
But to err is natural. I was blinded too at the start of the Games, questioning the futility of what is clearly a business endeavour, putting in line the safety of the athletes and their extended support cast, and against the wishes of the majority of a democratic nation.
Now, while grappling with the void, and when the flame is no longer there to light the way, we see what holds us together. And then it becomes apparent. Big business and the ills that it brings into the Olympics are a reality but it is also a construct of our times. The Games have withstood and overcome many such things in the past, including elitism and sexism. This edition saw the number of women almost equal the number of men at the Games. We are set for gender parity in Paris.
So, the Games themselves are larger than the trappings of our societal set-up in a given era, and will withstand this period and many more to come, provided we, the people, never stop believing. Tokyo leaves us with this message.
Now, at this moment, we can see ourselves accepting the void, and feel our lives moving forward, into the cycles of our daily bread, butter and glory in the forms that hold meaning to us. Moments that give us joy, and hope. Moments in life similar to what the Tokyo Games provided us to cherish.
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