How Do You Measure Olympic Glory?

Photo Courtesy: The Indian Express

Everyone I know is following the Olympics.

And it feels rather strange… in a good way. In a cricket-obsessed country, to have people take such keen interest in other sports to the extent of ignoring the on-going cricket series involving India, is something extraordinary. And something that has happened for the first time perhaps.

Now, let’s put things in perspective.

The first week at the Olympics was filled with despair for Indians — athletes and audiences alike. Many oohs-and-aahs, some close finishes, almost all superstars (“medal hopes”) succumbing to either injury or otherwise, it almost seemed as if the largest-ever Indian contingent at the Olympics would return barren-handed. Add to that some insensitive comments from socialites, some hideous self-promotion by sports authorities, and the entire discourse around the Olympics was anything but pleasant.

Then the tide turned. And how!

The second week at Rio has been one of hope, dreams, joy, passion and fulfillment. Our youngest of young athletes pouring their hearts out on the biggest sporting arena, the so-near-yet-so-far heartbreaks, the rising wave of public sentiment, and finally, the podium finishes that sent a nation of 1.3 billion into collective ecstasy. If we look at our medals tally, though, it still presents a sorry picture. We were among the last to open our account. And we have only two medals to boot for.

Photo Courtesy: NDTV

That brings me to the crux of this piece:

How do you measure Olympic glory: Sentiment or Score?

I’ve had intense debates with sports enthusiasts, sports writers and sports geeks on this. And the jury is still out.

“Winning hearts is temporary and medals are permanent.” Said one.
“Stories of struggle will be forgotten. Data is what time remembers for memory fades as eye-witnesses age.” Said another.
“Why should we only celebrate the permanent?” Said someone else.
“Medal is not important. Her journey is. She’s an inspiration.” And it went on.

***

To me, achievement goes beyond holding a piece of metal in your hand. Achievement is when your most celebrated opponent, an Olympic Gold medalist at that, acknowledges that what you do is “unbelievable” and that she would never attempt it.

Achievement is when you defy all odds — the country’s broken sports infrastructure, the apathy of sports and government officials, the perennial neglect of geography and the prejudice of patriarchy — to reach the biggest sporting stage and display your rare skill. Achievement is when you have a massive population follow your every move with bated breath.

Achievement is when a young man proudly introduces himself as, “I am from Tripura — Dipa Karmakar’s state.”

Photo Courtesy: Reuters
To measure sporting achievements in mere numbers and determining an athlete’s place in history based on the medals she’s won or not, especially in a nation like ours where taking up a sport is almost an act of defiance, is not only unfair but also an injustice to the very essence of sport — that must celebrate journeys as much as their culminations.

The fact that PV Sindhu got an entire nation hooked to the Badminton Finals is far more significant than the fact that she lost gold. The deep interest and passion that we felt while watching her fight against an incredibly tough opponent is a refreshing change. It surely didn’t exist when Saina Nehwal got us a Bronze four years ago in London. I don’t remember watching that game. And I know many of you wouldn’t either.

Photo Courtesy: india.com

But that is exactly where Saina’s achievement lies — the four years in between where she has not only risen to the top but also generated significant interest in badminton among us, cricket freaks.

And Sindhu took it one notch higher in this Olympics, as groups of people gathered outside shops, in offices, and in drawing rooms to cheer for her in the finals. How many times have we done that before for a non-cricket event? How many times have we cried before for a non-cricket sportsperson?

Every sport, in order to grow, needs its heroes. One of the reasons why non-cricket sports have suffered in India is because there are very few role models. But Rio Olympics 2016 has been a watershed moment in our sporting history. Of course, it won’t change anything overnight. But we have new heroes, new hopes, new struggles, and new stories. The medals shall soon follow.

And if you cannot celebrate the “failures”, you don’t deserve the “successes”.

(P.S. This post appeared in ABP Blogs. http://www.abplive.in/blog/how-do-you-measure-olympic-glory and also in the Editor’s Picks section of LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-do-you-measure-olympic-glory-sohini-mitter)