My First Marathon

On 20 Jun 2007, on a dark rainy night in Bombay I met with a road accident. Driving my bike, I failed to sight a taut rope tied across the road, and hit it resulting in my trachea (wind pipe) being severed completely and oesophagus (food pipe) partially. Thanks to some immediate and excellent medical attention, I made it out of the surgery to the ICU, where I stayed for long.

In those long months on the hospital bed I went through a range of emotions, from despair to rage, hope, relief, frustration and – sadly sometimes – self pity. It was then that a very dear friend gifted me something very precious, which was to change my outlook forever. He (who will know if he is reading this) gave me the revered book “Its not about the bike” by Lance Armstrong. The book really impressed upon me that impossible is actually nothing (ironic coming from a Nike sponsored athlete).

In the next few days, on a small paper (that I still treasure), I jotted down a mini “bucket list” – and running in any capacity had NO place on it. In short, I wanted to see the world (a high target but never mind), change a few priorities in my life, and most importantly, not waste a moment in my future doing things that I didn’t like or with people to whom I didn’t matter.

I was discharged in early 2008 and even then on a tracheotomy tube. Many surgeries followed (12 in all), but steadily I recovered far better than initially expected. And as decided, I began to search for my “list.” But despite being out of the hospital, I wasn’t completely out of gloom. It was then that two friends told me to join them in their daily runs. I was extremely sceptic, but their insistence was too hard to deny.

Reluctantly I agreed to join them for short runs, and it proved to be the second best gift I ever received. Infact I can even go so far as to say that it was the best decision I ever took in my life. What running has given me since then is definitely intangible, but it couldn’t be more conspicuous. When I ran my first half marathon in 2010 (in Bombay), I wasn’t a complete convert yet, but the event decided it for me.

Never in my life had I seen so many people turn up for almost nil rewards. Hardly any of them could hope for any prize, no professional favours, but only toil and suffering for hours. And then were the thousands who turned up to cheer. Sorry, not just cheer, but to volunteer assistance of various kinds. It was just surreal, 1hr 52mins of being treated like a celebrity. I knew that day, that there was no turning back.

I returned in 2011 and had a horror of a race. My first reaction was that I had lost focus, but the fact was, the run was no longer a challenge it was the first time. The elements were all there as earlier, yet the passion was slightly diminished. I knew there was the “full” up the ladder, but it was quite scary, for the elites, and definitely not for an average runner like me. As ever friends came into the picture, one of whom had just completed his second “full” and by the time registrations opened for the 2012 edition, I was motivated enough to choose the harder option.

The first thing I realised was running a marathon is not just a “one day” event with a little practice beforehand, instead its a full-scale commitment for about half a year. The training regimen I followed was just short of it (20 weeks), but demanded serious dedication. There was no point in going under prepared and embarrassing oneself, especially with the aura built around the event. Of course in today’s chaotic life, it was impossible for me to follow the schedule to the hilt, but I was lucky to manage without missing much.

If anything, I made it a point not to miss the important long runs and hence ensured to squeeze in a race (the Delhi half marathon) and the mandatory 20 mile practice run. If anyone would question me now, I would say that these runs go a long way in preparing one mentally, apart from the obvious physical aspect. The internal battle you fight to miss a weekend party for next morning’s run, when you drag yourself out after a bad day, when you run despite the schedule getting on your nerves, that’s when the pillars are building in the head.

No amount of preparation though can prevent from the last day jitters. Have I overused my shoes? Did I do enough tempo runs? Have I carbo loaded adequately? These are few of the hundreds of doubts that keep arising till the gun is fired. So finally after this abstract, coming to the race day experience itself.

This marathon was my sole focus and pretty much the pivot of my life for past 5 months. So it says a lot about my planning abilities, that I reached the venue 8 minutes late, long after the race had begun and not a runner in sight of the start line. Thankfully the race organisers provide everyone with a personalised timing chip, hence each competitor is timed individually when he/she crosses the start. Nevertheless it was far from ideal, especially as one does panic and overdo the start to catch up with the bunch, and then zigzag through all the runners slower than him.

By the time I turned around Nariman point, I was well settled and starting to enjoy the experience. I crossed a few friends, saw smiling (but focussed) faces all round and the Queen’s necklace passed in a blur. I was so high at this point that I even raced up the dreaded (for me) climb up Peddar Road. Move on to the Worli sea face and there were more high-fives exchanged as I crossed familiar faces running the half-marathon from the opposite direction.

Then came the main attraction of the day – running on the Bandra Worli Sea Link. This suspension bridge has become the new architectural face of Bombay, and while this was my third time to cover it on foot, each time the experience only grows richer. Maybe because this time I ran in the early morning glow, or since the breeze was much cooler, but I just could not stop grinning like an idiot as I jogged the 5 odd kms of tarmac hanging over the ocean.

The half point of the race arrived sooner than expected, and to my joy (which I would later realise was misleading) at a very comfortable effort. This dream continued as the route headed to Shivaji Park and the crowd began to get richer. It was probably my happiest stint of the day as little kids high-fived and people from all ages clapped, shouted and cheered. For a few moments I felt am going to sail through this.

But not for nothing is the marathon so feared and infamous. If it was such smooth sailing, it would never have attained the aura its associated with. At the 28km mark, I felt the first stings of trouble in my leg. As I reduced pace to shake it off, my head spun funny and within moments my dream world began crumbling manically. Approaching the revered Sidhivinayak Temple, the agnostic in me instantly converted to a devout and I duly tried pleasing higher powers.

Sigh they were not to be fooled! As kilometer 30 approached I was a total mess. The pain was getting unbearable, muscles aching, cramping, head spinning – in short it was all turning pear-shaped. I distinctly remember as I rounded the Worli loop, I had tears rolling down my cheeks. I wasn’t crying, it was just the pain, which was venting itself in this strange manner.

Even the dreaded thought of giving up or collapsing arose in my mind and continued for a good 10 odd minutes. But then as I looked around me, I saw grimacing faces, people struggling to put their feet ahead and it was obvious – I wasn’t alone. All these co-runners – many elder than me – were in the same boat, and if they could somehow keep going while suffering, so could I.

I also happened to exchange looks with a few runners in these moments. Looks that only fellow runners can understand. Looks where nothing is said, but two complete strangers fully understand what the other person means. We started pacing each other, one drafting ahead as the other weakened, duly looking back pulling the weaker runner on. Of course the ordered reversed with regularity.

And then there were the hundreds, who while not in the same suffering, were lining the route with pure support for each runner as one of their own kin. The most remarkable was a sikh family distributing water near the Worli dairy. Right from the octogenarian grand father to the 6-ish year old grand child, the entire joint family was out helping us runners – when that time could have been better spent elsewhere.

It’s with this faith that we (notice its no longer “I” now) approached the climb of Pedder Road once again. This approach is steeper and longer, which, added to the ailing limbs could spell disaster. Luckily this also happens to be the area where the crowds are the strongest and most vociferous. It’s just a wall of noise and appreciation that you pass through. Result – the gradient is as steep as ever, but the effort somehow diminished. And right from water, fruits, energy gels, biscuits, the crowd offers you all the supplements you could ask for.

The final phase is back on Marine Drive, albeit this time in bright sunlight. I have always found this to be the hardest part; not because it’s towards the end, but since its hot, and the other end is visible far away, somehow accentuating the task at hand. Even the support is marginalised by the “official” bands and corporate cheering squads. The innocence of the “sikh family” and purity of cheering is lost amid this electronic din.

However at this point you know that it’s just about survival. Keep plugging for a last few painful minutes and you are sure to reach the destination. That I did, just shy of 4hr 30 minutes – half an hour over my target time. Yet there was no disappointment. I also cannot say I was exultant or jubilant or ecstatic. They are just too extreme terms for the complete blankness I felt at the finish line. There was definitely a huge sense of relief and a feeling of “I really did this”, but you could not have realised that looking at my face.

It’s strange because after all the suffering and effort one should be jumping with delirious joy, but is conversely looking for peace. Its just a void, maybe it takes time to really hit what has just been accomplished. That’s the beauty of the event I guess, no matter who you are, no matter your time, no matter the number of times you have done it – the marathon will be a humbling experience. You realise that you do not conquer the marathon, you survive it. Just that few survive stronger than others.

I have never suffered so much in such a short duration, but I have never felt so alive either. This is an accomplishment no one can take away from me – ever, and I can proudly say hereon after, that I am a marathoner. And that one line makes up for all the pain.

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FIFA World Cup 2010 Diary : Germany’s Performance At The World Cup

So finally, its over. The biggest show on earth wrapped up on Sunday, after four weeks of controversies, cries, tears and extreme unbridled joy. Its a miracle how the FIFA world cup manages to send a few million into delirious euphoria, while drowning most of the remaining world’s population in deep grief, and yet remains the single most popular event on this planet. This time it was the turn of a small nation on the west coast of Europe to experience that joy for the first time in their history, but for their opponents, it was back to the sorrow they know only too well.

I won’t even attempt to recapture the magic of the FIFA World Cup 2010 (that would be plain stupid right), but would just focus on my favourite – Germany. Die Mannschaft arrived at the rainbow nation amidst many doubts over the team selection and a dark cloud in the form of the conspicuous absence of their charismatic leader Michael Ballack, through injury. The team was the youngest of all nations and consisted mainly of unheard names who wished to share the field (and certainly try to better) legends such as Messi, Kaka, Cannavaro and many more.

But with the Germans, we could be sure of two things, meticulous preparation and pristine fitness. There was an abundance of that on display in their opener against Australia at the scenic Durban stadium. What was not expected was the kind of refreshing football on show and the mauling of the tenacious socceroos. Podolski, Klose, Cacau and a relatively unknown kid – one Thomas Muller got on the score-sheet to destroy the team from down under. Their rapid play and one touch passing mesmerised the doubters, immediately placing them among the top teams.

However all that euphoria would not take long to fizzle out and things started to go pear shaped in the very next match, as “Mr World Cup” Miroslav Klose saw red courtesy a dubious decision. What probably hurt more, was Podolski missing a spot kick for the Germans from open play, a blasphemy that has its one and only precedent way back in 1974 (the unfortunate player being Uli Hoeness). German players missing a penalty is as unheard of as monsoons in Sahara, but it did happen and the consequent loss to Serbia was the first instance of top international pressure for this young bunch of footballers.

The next match was a do or die encounter against Ghana, who had the support of not just their entire nation, but the whole continent. Pressure and Germans traditionally go hand in hand, however the slim 1-0 victory did just enough to douse the butterflies and set up a meeting with old foes England in the first knockout stage. Germany topped the group as expected, albeit with a Serbian blot on their report card. Topping the group though, may not have been as good as it sounded, considering that set them up for matches against England, Argentina and Spain in succession (hoping each team went as far).

Germany-England ties always have an edge to them due to the political and footballing history of the nations. If the British (and the world) can never forgive Hitler, so the Germans just can’t get over the phantom goal of 1966. Each team had big words to say before the match, but the English were intent on practising penalties more than anything, knowing only too well how it all unravels for them in that roulette of football. But they needn’t have bothered. It was the pace of this young German team that tore apart the three lions’ hearts, and Frank Lampard’s phantom goal not withstanding, the islanders never stood a chance.

Muller was in his stride now, and with his contemporary Mesut Ozil, he showed how miserable England were at trapping fast midfielders. Lampard’s goal-that-never-was proved to be poetic justice for most German fans, but it was their team’s style of play that won them millions of neutral hearts.

Their next opponent were the almighty Argentinians. It was to be a repeat fixture of the previous year’s tournament, but the South Americans now boasted the World Player of the Year in their ranks and the enigmatic (if eccentric) Maradona as the coach. And the kind of football displayed by the Argentinians till then must have given even the hardest of Germans sleepy nights. It was billed as the match of the tournament (thus far) and in a way failed to live up to those expectations. Not that this statement would convince a German fan, but Argentina just failed to show up. Or maybe they did, but were more in awe of the show being put up by M/s Muller and co. Then there was the question of that enigma called Klose.

A player who scored a paltry three goals in the entire domestic season and was reduced to sidelines with his club, dug out a brace to move up in contention for a second golden boot in as many tournaments. As he netted the fourth goal past a hapless Argentine defence, the commentator’s words were “Argentina have been torn to shreds”. The only blot in their perfect performance was a dubious yellow card for the scintillating Muller, which meant the herathbreak of missing the semi-final for the young star.

The Germans were now certainly among the favourites, and with Brazil being knocked out by the hard fighting Dutch, their semi-final opponents Spain were probably the only team to match their calibre. The game was foreshadowed by Paul the oracle, an octopus with an uncanny understanding of international footballing dynamics. His prediction would not have gone down well in his native land, but the team had far bigger worries than invertebre prophecies.

 
Xavi, Alonso, Iniesta and Busquets were the meanest and most feared midfield assembled in South Africa, and while they had not been setting the score sheets on fire, their calibre could not be taken lightly. However the young players probably made too much of the hype surrounding their rivals and went on to be totally outclassed in the match.
The 1-0 score line does not tell the entire story, as the players in white only opened up to their natural game after falling behind, but by then it was all too late. Be it the nerves of an inexperienced team, or the absence of Muller, or maybe the toll of two previous high tempo matches, it was not the Germany of the past three weeks which slumped out of Durban on 07 July.

The third place playoff is often labelled as the “match no one wants to play”. But it can also be the most fearless game for these players with not being much at stake. And it did prove that way as both teams attacked with abandon. It was a bitter sweet ending for young Muller who had witnessed his world cup dream end from the sidelines only a few days ago, but took over the lead in the golden boot standing with his fifth goal of the tournament and the first of the game.

 
What followed was some top class and heart warming football, truly befitting to be called “the beautiful game”. It is sad that such games have to finish with a losing team and despite Diego Forlan’s injury time scorcher, the Uruguans left the world cup empty handed, but with immense pride. A second successive third place for Germany is not what these players must have had in mind, but they did exceed all expectations, scored the most goals by any team, and in general won the hearts of experts, fans and neutrals alike with their refreshing and innocent display of pleasure and flow on the field.

Thomas Muller won the Golden Boot and the Best Young Player award, and what an achievement that is for someone not even old enough to marry in most countries. All of 20 years young, this shining gem in the German crown is only going to get brighter and I’m sure will have set his eyes on Euro 2012 to guide his team a step higher on the podium from their 2008 performance.

 
There were other positives too for the team with the brilliance of Ozil and the leadership of Lahm. The much maligned rear guard stood firm against the sternest of tests and the team played neat football, earning minimal cautions along the way. It is a team of the future and also a study in youth development, but that would not be a consolation for a dream final with their neighbours on the highest stage of international football.
Gary Linekar’s immortal words may not have proved true this time, but with the promise this team holds, football can yet gain become a game of 22 men chasing a ball for 90 minutes, at the end of which the Germans always win.

WHAT A SHOW!!!

The biggest show on earth got over for the 29th time last month. With the extinguishing of the Olympic torch and passing of the flag to the mayor of London, China rounded up its shock and awe show among much splendour. The Olympics have always signified the pinnacle of human achievement and endurance – and in the recent times also lots and lots of political propaganda – and these games were ahead in every respect. Here is a brief recap of the tumultuous journey.

Well it all started at the beginning of the year with the tour of the Olympic torch. It created a furore in every part of the world wherever it went. If the torch relay was to show the world unity and signify peace, it only achieved the exact opposite. Instead of being paraded among jubilant and cheering crowds, the scenes were of loud protests and the security blanket resembling that of a feared gangster being transferred to a high security prison. Though many disturbing questions were raised, the staging of the Olympics was never in doubt. Finally it took a tragedy of epic proportions (the earthquake in China) to take the torch protests out of limelight in the media.

The opening ceremony, planned on the auspicious day of 08/08/08 was the grandest the world had ever seen. Lot has been written about the 2008 percussionists and 17000 other performers in the bird’s nest stadium. Ditto about the digitally mastered fireworks (of course for the TV broadcast only) and the sorry tale of the lip-synching young girl who enchanted us all with her “melodious” voice. But while both these aspects (the grand ceremony and sanctimonious attitude) could have been expected of the Chinese, the world was not far behind. Despite anti-China rhetoric from almost all leaders of the world during the torch relay, everyone who was someone was there in the bird’s nest on the fateful day, careful not to miss our on the grandeur – or more astutely, not to annoy the fastest growing market in the world.

When finally the action did start, it was like a breath of fresh air, away from the politics and hypocrisy of the bureaucrats. The initial days saw intense action in the water cube, and here there was only one name to be heard. Michael Phelps was a man on a mission, to do what no one ever had done before (infact not many even dared dream it). His Achilles’ heel was to be the relays, specially the 4x100m freestyle where the French were the favourites. And so it seemed till the last natator got into the pool. When Jason Lezak dived in almost a body length behind Alain Bernard, all seem to have been lost for Phelps. Bernard was touted to be the best freestyle sprinter in the world, however the pundits did not factor for the chagrin the American team would have felt for making Phelps lose out on the historic achievement. This and maybe a little complacency on the part of the French swimmer ensured a remarkable turn around by the US team which pepped the French to gold by the narrowest of margins.

A devastated Bernard was lost for words, and saved his answer in the pool. He went on to claim the 100m freestyle gold over the world record holder Eamon Sullivan of Australia by a fingertip. The Aussie men’s squad was probably one of the biggest disappointments of the games. Even with the Phelps factor, they were expected to put in a strong performance. When a team boasting of names like Sullivan and Hacket – not to mention an unprecedented history in the sport – fails to win even a single gold medal, it can only be termed a tad poor show on their behalf. Their women counterparts however did save the face with the young Stephanie Rice proving to the world that she indeed is the best all round female natator presently. The Aussies also won some unexpected relays breaking a few world records in the process.

But the story of the watercube had to be Phelps, who showed that he is arms length ahead of the rest of the field (pun intended). With 14 golds overall, 8 in these games and time on his side to still be there in London, he certainly seems to be written and re-written in the history books. However to bestow upon him the tag of the “Best Ever Olympian” may still be a tad unfair to other athletes. While the achievement and dedication of Phelps is certainly unsurpassable (or so it seems now), he competes in a sport which is less prone to injuries and has the luxury of competing in as many as 8 events. A sprinter of his calibre or even better cannot achieve the same due the demands of his discipline. Hence it would only be fair to term Phelps as the greatest swimmer ever and also a legendary Olympian par excellence. But no further please.

The next surprise was Team GB (as they preferred to be addressed). Britain was never as dominant in contemporary times as they were during these Olympics. Rebecca Adlington won two golds and in the process became Britain’s first female swimmer to do so in ages. Their rowing team won gold for the third successive Olympics, but the biggest surprise was the cycling squad. They completely decimated the opposition winning almost 7 out of 10 golds in various disciplines with a barrage of silver and bronze too. It has to be the singularly most successful squad in the games. But the varied success for the British also encountered sailing, marathon swimming, athletics and boxing. There were a few disappointments too with Paula Radcliffe again robbed out on a chance to live her dream courtesy a stress fracture. But it was her indomitable fighting spirit which saw her limp to the finish in excruciating pain and in tears. But if the winning Romanian is anything to go by, then Radcliffe has time on her hands. All in all, the British contingent return from Beijing mighty pleased – with their healthiest tally in the games ever, and the Olympic flag to hold the 30th Olympiad in their backyard.

The biggest individual story after Phelps has to be Usain Bolt. He is almost a novice when compared to the field he competes against and 100m is not even his main event. But he did blow the bird’s nest and the world into delirium. Never has the world seen such domination in this event, wherein an athlete at the Olympic level has the luxury to celebrate after just 80% distance run – and then still set a new world record (oh and did I mention coupled to a poor start). His 100m celebrations have been termed a little rude considering the company he is in, but then never before has an athlete decimated the opposition so ruthlessly in such a high performance sport. To say that he left the world speechless would be a gross understatement.

Now coming to his main event – the 200m sprint. If anyone still put his money against Bolt, he had to be either very brave, or very stupid, or both. In any case he would have lost his money – and in style at that – as bolt did get his second gold, again in record time, though this time with more humility and slightly more effort. Such was the gap between him and the nearest rival that the second placed athlete was not even in the same frame. Bolt further went on the complete the holy trinity of gold and world record in the 4x100m relay. This time they did have a challenge – that of not dropping the baton. Else it was a walk in the park. The women too complimented the men with a clean sweep in the 100m and only missing the silver in the 200m, but messed it up in the 4x100m relay.

Talking of mess ups, the Americans won the gold in this aspect hands down. It started with the shock exit of Tyson Gay in the semi-final heats of 100m. What with all the hullaballoo in the prelude to the 100m of the holy triumvirate, Gay left everyone – not in the least his own team – feeling cheated with his early exit. But it was not to end here. In the 200m too the bronze winning Wallace Spearmon was disqualified for violating his lane. That he was deep into celebrations when informed of his folly only made it look even more stupid on TV. The US team certainly not finding it funny, lodged a protest against Churandy Martina, the silver medallist. While his team called this action as immoral and not in keeping with the sportsman spirit, the fact was that Churandy was as guilty as Spearmon and should have been disqualified by the authorities in the first place. Still the incident did bring out the desperation of the US athletics squad for want of medals – any medals and in any manner possible.

If the US hoped this would break the pattern, they were in for further drama. First it was the “invincible” Sanya Richards fading from gold to bronze in the final stretch of the women’s 400m, and then the piece-de-resistance. The men’s and women’s 4x100m teams provided enough melancholy in the heats. With both of them dropping the baton in the final changeover (while comfortably leading the heats), the world stood stunned and a bit bemused. It was the strangest – and might I add most painful – of co-incidences for such a thing to happen within minutes of each other. Well, at least the men had women for company (and vice-versa) in shedding copious amount of tears and the press conference grill that was to follow. Taking a cue from this the Jamaican women decided to go one better and drop the baton in the finals, also knocking the Brits out by crashing into them. All too well for the Russian girls who laughed their way to an unexpected gold. The redemption for the US came only in the men’s 400m with a clean sweep and also in the men’s and women’s 4x400m relay (though there too but for the heroics of Sanya Richards, they would have been shocked by a spirited Russian effort). But the mother of all heart breaks was the pulling out of Liu Xiang from the 110m hurdles heats. As a nation watched with bated breath, the sprinter grimaced and limped out of the stadium. For the 1.3billion people who had waited 4 years for this moment, that which would have signified China’s Olympic success par all other victories, was not to be. Instead there were tears and several faces reflecting what might have  been.

In between there were several flashes of brilliance. Elena Isinbaeva was the darling of the bird’s nest en route to (yet another) world record setting gold in women’s pole vault. The US “redemption” team too lived up to their name and claimed the basketball gold in emphatic fashion beating Spain in the finals. Triathlon came out as one the top events with the men’s race seeing 4 athletes sprinting to a finish and the race decided only in the final 250m. Several countries opened their medal account for the first time ever. These included the extremes like (the oil rich) Bahrain to (the war ravaged) Afghanistan.

There was much to celebrate for us Indians too. We won our first individual gold ever courtesy Abhinav Bindra in the 10m air rifle. But for me surpassing his achievements were Sushil Kumar and Vijender Kumar who won bronze in wresting and boxing respectively. These two achieved the feat fighting against poverty, abysmal training facilities and imbecilic support staff. Though taking nothing away from Bindra’s achievement, it seems that the bronze means a lot more for these two men from rural towns than the gold means for the boy from Chandigarh. In any case it was our healthiest tally ever in the games. But while it is a matter to be mighty pleased, it certainly is not a matter to be jubilant about. And certainly we can’t be proud (only the athletes who won it can be proud of it). I say so because for a nation of 1 billion and which claims to be one of the strongest emerging economies in the world a tally of 1 gold and 2 bronze is pretty abysmal. Even countries that are much smaller than our states have got bigger kitties. And I’m not talking about power houses like Britain or Australia here. Even countries like Azerbaijan, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago etc have more medals than us. I guess we are going overboard with out celebrations and people who do not deserve are claiming too much credit for it. While we should certainly felicitate the athletes and feel good, but more importantly we should not let go the opportunity to build upon this success.

A reminder of it would be the fact that China won its first gold in 1984. Also Britain only won a single gold at Barcelona ’92. It is for all to see where the efforts of the two countries in the subsequent years have landed them. There certainly is no shortage of talent, resources or money, only the will and sometimes the forced will to bell the cat. Also Bindra’s stament of “there is nothing more left to achieve” is certainly very discouraging if not shocking. One would expect him to be charged up after this and hungry to cement his position as a champion of the sport (also in the process cull the possibility of any expert in the future from labelling this as a flash in the pan success for the sportsman). Imagine if Phelps would have had this attitude four years ago. This certainly paints a poor picture as to the motivation levels in Indian sport. If Isinbaeva can break her own record countless times and still have the will to go for another record with the gold already in the bag, then there should be nothing stopping Bindra from preparing even stronger for London and repeat his achievement in four years time bringing more glory for self and country.

Overall these Olympics were unprecedented in pretty much every aspect. Be it the grandeur of the opening ceremony (or the strife before it), the barrage of world and Olympic records which were re-written, emergence of Phelps as the most decorated athlete in the history of the discipline or finally the change of guard in the leader of the medal tally. London, people say has a tough job ahead to live upto these standards. But if I know anything of human history (and British penchant for style and pomp), things have generally moved ahead – much ahead – when least expected to. Meanwhile the athletes can bask in the glory and also fade out among the dazzle of the more commercially marketed sports for another four years. For most of these athletes are a shade of their more marketable counterparts (infact several of them are not even full time into their respective disciplines); but for sure once they get back together four years later, it still is going to be one hell of a party and even more performances which take our breath away leaving us in dumbfounded awe to their achievements.

Finally I have saved for the last what for me was the defining event of the Olympics, the women’s 10km marathon swimming. For the record Russia’s Larisa Ilchenko out sprinted the British duo of Keri-Anne Payne and Cassandra Patten to gold. But the story here was certainly Natalie du Toit. The South African who had lost a leg in a road accident showed unimaginable spirit and determination to make it to the Olympic squad, and in a field of 25 fit and able bodied women (one of who could not finish), managed to out swim 9 of them and finish 16th overall. If the Olympics signify anything, it is certainly these kinds of inhuman seeming tales of achievement and indomitable spirit. How often in our quest for glory and gold such tales of courage are lost between the medal tables and political propaganda? How many people remember the athlete who ran 42km with a broken rib in stifling heat or who walked 50km in such adverse conditions in searing pain? In our obsession to focus on the finish line we very conveniently ignore all the years of toil, sacrifices and pain an average athlete goes through just to make it to the start line. Olympics after all are not just Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. Olympics are much above it. They are also Natalie du Toit and Jamie Costin. I’m sure you don’t relate to the second name, he competed for Ireland in the men’s 50km walk and finished 44th; as to what was so special about that I would recommend you to spend some time and find about it online. Hence as the world debates as to whether London can outdo Beijing in the fireworks and the acrobatic performers, I would want to drain out the rhetoric and wait patiently for four years to see yet more such stories of glory and tears, because they for me make up the true Olympics.

ALAN SHEARER – KING OF NEWCASTLE

Yes I know, it is not the norm to write a testimonial to a living person, but when the person is as special as Alan Shearer, then he deserves something…well, special. Super Al (as he is affectionately called by his fans) was not just the ideal role model for a generation, he was the very embodiment of the perfect footballer in the 90s. His typical style to celebrate a goal, with true innocent happiness splashed across his face and one arm lifted, finger-pointing towards the almighty was simple, yet heart warming. And it is this simplicity and humbleness of his (tough to find among footballers of equal stature) that captivated fans not just in England, but all across the globe. This man was the reason I started watching football and he holds a very very special place in my heart (which I don’t think any other sportsman might ever take).

Alan was born in Gosforth, England on 13 Aug 1970. He was interested in football at a very young age, but the irony was that, the would be legend of Newcastle FC was rejected by the very same club when he tested for their junior team as a goalkeeper, at the tender age of 15 (then playing for Wallsend Boys Club). But his talent did not go unnoticed for long, and he was soon picked up as an apprentice with Southampton, although as a striker and not goalkeeper. He later made his debut as a substitute against Chelsea on 26 Mar 1988., but it was his full debut on 9 Apr 1988 that made national headlines as he scored a hat-trick against Arsenal at an age of 17 yrs and 240 days, thereby breaking the record of Jimmy Greaves becoming the youngest player to score a hat-trick in top flight football.

His performance certainly aroused interest and in 1992 Blackburn manager Kenny Dalglish signed him up for £ 3.3 million (notable here is that Shearer turned down an offer from Manchester United then). And started his meteoric rise. He was in prolific form, scoring 31 goals from 40 matches in the 1993-94 season, guiding his club to second position in the league. This breathtaking performance won him the “Football Writer’s Footballer of the Year Award” that season. The arrival of Chris Sutton for the 1994-95 season led to the formation of the feared “SAS” (Shearer and Sutton) partnership. This added factor ensured that both Shearer and his club bettered their previous year’s record, claiming the championship honours. Alan netted 34 goals from 42 matches, guiding Blackburn to champions of the Premiership, and this remains the legend’s only club silverware of his career. He moved up in the awards ladder too, winning the PFA Player of the Year Award. His true class came out the next season, as he continued to find back of the net with stunning  frequency and finished the season at 31 goals from 35 matches. However the club could only finish a disappointing 7th. These two seasons Shearer also got a taste of European football as Blackburn featured in the UEFA Cup and Champions League respectively, though with no success. While club silverware eluded him, it was not for lack of contribution from Alan Shearer, as he finished the highest scorer in the league for an astonishing 3 CONSECUTIVE SEASONS from 1994-95 till 1996-97

Alan was now in his prime and the poster boy of English football. In 1996 he received another offer from Manchester United, however Jack Walker would not allow this under any circumstances. So Shearer joined Newcastle United managed by his boyhood hero Kevin Keegan, and little did he know that this would change his life. He was transferred for a whopping (then) transfer fee of £15 million making him the MOST EXPENSIVE FOOTBALLER IN THE WORLD at the time. What followed, as they say, is history. This was the beginning of a very special relationship with Newcastle, Keegan and the Geordies. His first season at the club earned him his second PFA Player of the year award. Though the next three seasons were average by his high standards (as in the number of goals scored), nevertheless he guided Newcastle to two consecutive FA Cup finals, and to the semis in the third year. He was deservingly promoted to the position of captain in 1999, which he held till his retirement

Unfortunately his career in the national team was never as glamorous. He was picked up for the England U-21 team in 1989, scoring a whopping 13 goals in 11 matches. This potent spell did not go unnoticed, and the coach of the senior team, Graham Taylor gave him his debut against France in Feb 1992 (followed by his only match for England B team a month later). He impressed here too and scored in his debut with the country’s senior team. In the absence of the legendary Gary Linekar, Shearer was expected to spearhead the England attack with (another would be legend) Paul Gascoigne. However an injury kept him out of a large part of the 94 World Cup qualifiers, in which England eventually failed to progress. Though this was a big disappointment for everyone, Shearer decided to focus on the upcoming Euro 96. This would be his first major competition for his country, and he did not disappoint. Wearing the coveted captain’s armband (which here too he retained till he hung his boots), he lead by example, scoring 5 goals and guiding England to the semi final. They were knocked out by (eventual winners) Germany in the penalties (though Shearer scored in that game and also converted his spot kick, but Gareth Southgate painfully shot wide). He was awarded the “Golden Boot” for being the highest scorer of the tournament, thus proving his credentials at the world stage amongst intense competition. He scored 5 times in the qualification campaign for the 98 World Cup, ensuring England qualified this time round and he could realise his dream of representing his country at the World Cup finals (it was the only time he played in the World Cup). Sadly yet again the ghost of penalty shoot-out came to haunt England as they maintained their abysmal record at the death. This time the victors were Argentina, and in the second round itself. Though Shearer converted, two of his teammates, Paul Ince and David Batty did not oblige. Moving on, qualifying for Euro 2000 saw him score his first hat-trick for England against Luxembourg, while in the finals his goal ensured England defeated Germany for the first time since the 1966 World Cup final. This would be his last tournament for England, as playing for both club and country took its toll, especially with age not being on his side any more. Shearer announced his retirement from international football after Euro 2000 to focus solely on Newcastle. Despite intense speculation that he would return to lead the team in the 2002 World Cup, he refused, standing by his decision. In 63 appearances for his country, Shearer scored 30 goals, placing him joint fifth in the England all-time goal scorers list.

Shearer continued playing for his club, but announced he would retire at the end of the 2004-05 season. This received lots of pleas from fans and the management of Newcastle United, including his manager Graeme Souness, and after much deliberation he decided to continue in a player-coach capacity till the end of the following season (a rarity in the game). However his swansong was not to be as anyone would have wanted. Playing against Sunderland on 17 Apr 06, with just three games remaining in the season (and his retirement), he suffered a tear to the medical collateral ligament in his left knee, rendering him unfit to play for the remaining matches. A testimonial match against Celtic was organised in his honour on 11 May 06 at St James’ Park which had ex-Newcastle players like Steve Watson, Gary Speed, Rob Lee and Les Ferdinand participating. Though Shearer’s injury did not allow him to play, nevertheless he initiated the kick off and scored a penalty to win the match for Newcastle. During the 2004-05 season, he scored his 201st goal, surpassing the record of Jackie Milburn for the club. Eventually he finished with a tally of  422 goals for club and country (260 in the Premier League alone), with an average of 25 goals a season for his 17 years in professional football. These are phenomenal figures by any standards that any player in the world would be proud of.

Alan was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for services to the Association Football in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 2001. He was also credited with Freedom of the City of Newcastle upon Tyne in March the same year. There are hardly any unpleasant or controversial incidents to report in which Shearer was involved, as he generally kept a low profile and chose his football to do the talking instead. However the only incident that comes close was during the latter part of the 1997-98 season when he kicked Neil Lennon in the head at Leicester City during a Premiership match, but was not punished for the same. The FA Chief Executive Graham Kelly later claimed in his autobiography that Shearer threatened to walk out on the World Cup squad if he was punished by the FA. The player  himself vehemently denied the allegation (and continues to do so) and said that the incident itself was purely accidental.

What Alan Shearer has achieved in his career, very few can even dream of. Yet more than his football achievements, it was his sportsmanship and honesty that earned him respect and admiration from fans and rivals alike. He has been in lot of news recently, being linked to the post of the Newcastle manager. But Shearer – though not denying it at some stage – has refused to take the post presently to spend time with his family. While none will question his appointment as manager at any time, all respect his decision understanding the toll that professional football takes on the personal life of all those involved in it. There is little doubt though, of him returning in similar capacity in the future, and the same was echoed by the present Newcastle manager (and Shearer’s mentor at the club) in a press conference recently, “Alan Shearer is going to manage this football club one day, that’s for sure.” When he actually does, all Geordies and thousand others (like me) will watch with bated breath as the legend stalks the pitch again, playing his magic, albeit from the sidelines now.