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.