Sunday, 5 August 2012

The spirit of sport

Here's a quiz. Who won the gold in the following events in Beijing 2008.

1. Men's decathlon -  for the title of the greatest all round athlete
2. Women's 1500m - the metric mile
3. Men's football -the most popular sport on earth
4. Women's individual all round in gymnastics - the most "wow" event
5. Men's 50m freestyle swimming - the fastest swimmer in the world

If you scored zero out of five, congratulations. If I modify the questions to simply say which country did the winner come from in each of the above events, and if you still scored zero out of five, then even more congratulations. We are all in the group of 99% of the human race.

If you are wondering where I am going with this post, let me just say that I was inspired to write this by a brilliant column in today's Hindu by Nirmal Shekar.  It is an outstanding piece of writing, even by Nirmal Shekar's high standards and is a perfect exposition of the spirit of sport.

Yes, sport is about winning. But of course, its not just about winning. If you can't remember who won some of the blue riband events of the last Olympics, only four years ago, does winning really matter ? Yes and no, is the answer. Sure, the world loves a winner. Whoever is going to forget Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt from Beijing. But winning, for most, is momentary. Its also about achieving a personal excellence,  a personal ambition, doing your best, and soaking in the spirit of sport.

The spirit of sport is something undefinable. Its why after you batter each other to exhaustion, you shake each other's hand at the end. Its also why after the medal ceremony, all three medalists stand on top of the podium, arms around each other.  Its why Kobe Bryant, on the day he's not playing, is sitting at the velodrome cheering the cyclists , whom he has probably never seen before. Its why, when the national anthem is played, you can't escape tearing up.  Its why it is an indescribable honour for Saina to get her bronze medal from Li Lingwei, one of the immortals of women's badminton, who congratulated her warmly and gave her an affectionate pat. Its also why the antics in the women's doubles event in badminton is such a sad violation of what sport stands for.

So you can perhaps understand, why for me, one of the finest Indian performances in the Olympics thus far, came in the 20km walk , perhaps the most unglamorous event in athletics. It was a gripping event , if you saw it. There was attack after attack and the tactics were enthralling. The Chinese finally dominated and Chen Ding won. The defending Beijing gold medalist, Valeriy Borchin of Russia,  collapsed close to the finish after giving his all and had to be taken in an ambulance. Amidst all the drama, young Irfan, an armyman from Kerala, had the race of a lifetime. He smashed the national record as well as his personal best in coming a close 10th. He barely made the qualification mark for the event in May, and yet here he was at the finish with the world's best, performing way above his level. That is a stupendous achievement , a world class performance if there was one. He didn't win a medal. But his was a fabulous achievement.

I searched today's papers for a mention - couldn't find much. No Chief Minister is going to announce a reward. No shrill TV anchor is going to interview his mother. No crowds are going to receive him at the airport. In the usual tyranny of the first name, surname naming convention, that bedevils most South Indians, they didn't even get his name right - his bib said "Kolathum Thodi" ! Even the TV coverage during the race barely caught him, except his wonderfully happy grin when he finished. But for me, it was one of the highlights of Olympics thus far, by an Indian.

For , you see, he embodied the spirit of sport.

24 comments:

  1. If you are really interested in the "quiz", here are the winners

    1. Bryan Clay of the US
    2. Nancy Lagat of Kenya
    3. Argentina
    4. Nastia Liukin of the US
    5. César Cielo Filho of Brazil

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  2. My dear Ramesh, a brilliant piece from a great sportsman himself.

    Human endeavour is all about being better than you can be, and not setting any limits for yourself. There are the gifted for whom these limits transcend those of ordinary men, and they become great at what they do - sport, literature, music, business. Your post is an exhortation to do your best. As the Bhagavad Gita says, it is really about making all the effort you can and not worrying too much about the end-result. Or that well-known Kural" Deivathaal Ahaadeninum Muyarchi Thammeivarutha kuli tharum".


    This is why I was so disappointed in the Indian hockey team. As their frustrated coach put it, they were happy with showing up instead of putting their coffins on the side of the pitch when they take the field. There was no attitude of giving your all. Easy to blame the blue turf, the stronger Europeans, and the weather.

    In our own days back in the Institute we won disproportionately because of spirit. That made losing easier - because one did one's best.

    Your description of Irfan's achievement is very moving.

    "To Strive, To Seek, To Find and Not to Yield!".

    Amen.

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  3. Another gem from you.....I would not have come to know of Irfan's NR.....the results are so close....he did amazing!

    Also very very proud of Saina....she had the confidence and a great strategy....bronze very well deserved....and to be an Indian woman to achieve this feat is also huge accomplishment!

    I am a sucker for women's artistic gymnastics.....Gabby floored me with her performances at the team as well as individual events, and I love the Romanians too....they had such a spunk!

    Now curious to see who is crowned the world's fastest man ;)

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  4. It was a beautiful piece of writing from Nirmal Shekar. Especially some of his lines were so stirring. A must read for everysports person or any person to lift up their spirits. As if that was'nt enough. Your piece of writing is matching up to it. If anything more than that. Supported by the example of Irfan.

    Ramesh, I think your reading deserves a much wider audience so that many get too read your revelations. We are lucky.
    Thank you for celebrating unsung heroes .

    No, I did'nt know any of those answers you queried. Your queries reminded me of Narottam puri for a moment and then that BSNL Spots quiz master on Podhigai( I don't know his name)

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  5. @Ravi - Much honoured - thanks for the kind words. Yeah - the hockey team seems to be in a rut. The national game is in difficulty both in India and in Pakistan. Alas....

    @Shachi - Hope you are enjoying the sport. I suppose you have escaped from the tyranny of NBC and are watching it on BBC on the net .... For a sports fan like you, this must be a lovely time watching a lot, especially as the time difference is in the favour of your part of the world.

    @Asha - Much humbled by your kind words. Oh - the quiz was not really one; so no comparisons to Narottam Puri. Just to make the point that winning is momentary, while achievement is everlasting.

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  6. Am I glad to be part of 99% of human race? (thats a question I am asking myself :-)) I guess I am, but i am not too haughty to be proud about that :-) :-)

    I have been waiting for a post from you for more than a week and thanks for this post, its worth the wait.

    And yes the sport is all about the spirit of personal excellence and to me it brings out my indianness (Patriotism is too big a word for me) best. Its also why we are thrilled to see a Saina, Irfan or Vijay win medal for our country. Its also why I keep saying silent prayers every now and then whether I am watching the sport or not, for India and her sportsmen to win medals.

    The spirt of the sport matters. infact that is all that matters.

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  7. Anonymous5/8/12

    Nice post Ramesh ! I take no interest in sports and the Olympics have been passing by as just one more event amongst others. But even to me, your idea of what is important makes sense. Well written! Suja

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  8. Though not a fan of the Olympics (or most sports stuff, for that matter) I agree with your arguments here, Ramesh.

    Yet again, I wonder whether the cricket-mania in India sucks up pretty much everything from all other sports? It is like the "resource curse" in oil-rich countries!

    In my way, way, younger days, when I had lots and lots of hair on my head and it was all black, I keenly followed the news about India's hockey team (I can recall the radio commentary even now: "Govinda, Govinda, Govinda, gooooooaaaaaallll") ... while the natural versus astro-turf issues are understandable, Ravi's note that the hockey team seemed to be happy to simply show up ... perhaps they misunderstood Woody Allen's wisecrack that "80 percent of success is just showing up" :)

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  9. @Vincy - Oh yes, its wonderful to wear your patriotism on your shoulder especially in sport. Especially for an Indian, where success is few and far between. Britain has gone completely bonkers - they had an incredible day on Saturday and its lovely to see a nation collectively going bananas.

    Much appreciate your kind words.

    @Suja - Totally bowled to see you here. Not your genre, I know , so a special thanks for your comment.

    @sriram - No, its not about the cricket curse. Indians simply don't have sports in their genes. The ones that rise up are the exceptions.

    Ahh, the hockey of the seventies. Govinda to push, Ajitpal to stop and Surjit to hit annnnnd GOOOAALLLL. Those were the days my friend......

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  10. Hey, speaking of hockey, there was one memorable match, towards the end of my undergrad days. It was India v. West Germany. India was down four goals, and the Germans were so certain that they would win that they eased up.

    And then there was a player who displayed all the effort that you want to see in all the sportspeople. I suppose I could Google and find out the player's name--it was not Surjit but some other Singh. The guy scored one, and then another, and another, and in a matter of few minutes, the game was tied. Even! Germany couldn't manufacture anything more and the match that was so much in their favor ended in a draw.

    It was almost as if that was the last attempt by the dying Indian hockey team ... since then, of course, I have wandered away, mentally and geographically, and my guess is that India hasn't achieved anything much in hockey?

    hmmm ....
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KODZtjOIPg

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  11. That is what makes it beautiful and so true, Ramesh! your post set me ponder for quite sometime. Battering oneself to the core, challenging the game itself above everything else, loosing with panache, winning with humility - aaah... the joy of sports!

    After every defeat, one goes back, never gives up, comes back stronger, harder and faster. Spirit of sports! Some win, some loose... THE GAME...

    ...always wins!

    How about the story of Oscar Pistorius! I was just awed when I read his story.

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  12. Boss, You are so awesome [as usual]
    Coming to the badminton? i think i will take side with these guys and ask what's wrong in what they did? [all in the name of strategy ;)] http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/08/badminton_by_design.html

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  13. Great read as always! Read both the links as well and totally agree that it requires more strength and character to lose with dignity than to win in style.

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  14. @sriram - Don't remember that game. Getting old :)

    Ah - that immortal classic from Mary Hopkins ....

    @zeno - HBS should remain with business and not write such garbage on sport. Round robins and groups are common in every sport. That doesn't excuse such behaviour.

    @Deepa - Yes, dignity and style are precious qualities - not easily achievable.

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  15. If any country wants to learn on how to encourage and nurture sports, they must learn from China. If my memory serves me right, China used to dominate certain kinds of sport like table tennis, badminton. But now I see them participating in lot more other events and winning medals. They realized they need to compete in all sports to become No1. I cannot but admire their focus and tenacity and the willpower to show the entire world that they have arrived and will be here to stay for a long long time.

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  16. oooh..i was a expecting a post on total contrasting topic :)

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  17. @Vishal - Yeah, the spirit of sport is true for life as well. Giving one's best, irrespective of rewards, is a very laudable aim in all walks of life

    @Sanjay - The Chinese system is not all good. State sponsored systems like the erstwhile USSR's and now China's are often ruthless and soul destroying. You are uprooted from your family at a very young age, trained mercilessly and if you don't make it to the very top, are just castaway. Even if you are a champ, you hardly have any life. Its not a system I would recommend. Gold medals is not everything.

    @Gils - Was thinking of writing a Tamil movie review, but changed my mid at the last minute :)

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  18. Even though I don't follow any sport closely, I always enjoy watching the Olympics. There's something about people coming together, having strived all their lives and giving it their best. It all feels so real. I asked my 7 year old who her favorite was in the Olympics and she said Gabby and Missy (well NBC believe in showing only those 2 events:( ) I asked her why and she said "first, they are girls. Second, they set a goal and worked and worked and worked and succeeded" Now that's a powerful message! I hope she remembers the spirit of giving your best well after she has forgotten the names.

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  19. @J - That's a brilliant takeaway by your daughter. Wow !

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  20. So, I kept thinking about my comments here, and ... they evolved into a full-fledged post at my blog :)

    http://sriramkhe.blogspot.com/2012/08/so-why-does-india-not-win-at-sporting.html

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  21. What a Beautiful piece and what a beautiful embedded article. It almost brought tear to my eyes.

    Another take would that there is an immediate objective, an immediate task, and it is so daunting and over powering that we assume there is no greater species than ourselves doing it, and that moment of success or failure is as though life defining or life shattering. but when you look back at that moment, after many years, you realize that you are looking back alone, no one other than you remembers, many times, you yourself dont remember all of it, but at the end of it, your going through the grill has left you a few steps ahead of where you started, personally, professionally and emotionally and it is the motion that it offers to life that matters.

    As usual, absolute incoherent rambling and as usual - sorry for this.

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  22. @Sandhya - As usual, what you call as rambling or incoherent, is a beautiful thought, packaged in nice words. Very well put.

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  23. Hat tip to you sire. :-) You sure must be enjoying London. And thanks for the pointer to Nirmal's piece. It was brilliant, as you said.

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  24. @RamMmm - Tip my hat to you too. Please come back to blogging. See the El Nino effect on Bangalore :):)

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