Tokyo Olympics: This one is for the athletes, and them alone
For the next few days, look beyond the stark headlines and cold logic. Gather around TV screens, fly the flag, and paint your faces.
Archer Pravin Jadhav's parents are daily wage earners. At the age of 10, he was severely undernourished and weighed a mere 22 kilograms.
Javelin thrower Annu Rani's father disapproved of her early interest in the sport. Secretly, her brother continued their training by making her hurl sugarcanes in an empty field.
Steeplechaser Avinash Sable would run six kilometers each day, just to get to school.
Badminton player B Sai Praneeth would get up at 4 in the morning so he could catch a bus that would take him to his training centre, 18 kilometers away.
Boxer Amit Panghal's brother would borrow gloves for his talented sibling, unable to afford new ones due to the family's limited means.
Gymnast Pranati Nayak's father was a bus driver, taking up odd office jobs to support the family as his retirement neared.
These are mere snapshots. Each member of the Indian contingent in Tokyo, arrives at the Olympics with a backstory that makes their presence at the pinnacle of world sport, a monumental achievement in itself.
Even as a resilient virus rages on, and in its wake a noisy debate about whether these Olympics are really worth holding at all in the absence of crowds and the lurking fear of catching a deadly infection, try putting yourselves in the shoes of these athletes. For you and me, a cancelled Games is the absence of an enjoyable spectacle - a bit of a bummer, yes, but hey, we'll turn our attention to something else. For these men and women, to quote renowned football coach Bill Shankly:
"Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that."
Just replace football with whatever discipline it is these athletes have committed their young lives to thus far.
In sport, to use marketing parlance, we are the end consumers. These supremely skilled individuals take to courts, tracks, fields, and arenas to wield all sorts of equipment or to simply run, swim or jump and we swoon in delight. How does a human body do that, we wonder? We applaud and relish, and quite often when the loser is separated from victor, we empathise.
However, do we really get it? A sportsperson's performance is a public demonstration, an invitation to sample excellence. But their journey to that point, and the quest then to remain there, is among humankind's loneliest pursuits. It demands hurling sugarcanes in empty fields, punching with borrowed gloves, or waking up at an hour when kids your age are snoozing restfully.
For an Olympics-bound athlete, the obsession is in the pursuit of that one moment where it's all justified. The blood and tears, the sacrifices of family and friends, the devotion of coaches. In Tokyo, while the world grapples with questions of risk versus reward and the consequences of a potential super-spreader event, all these athletes hear is — will my moment be snatched away, never to be mine again? Where I will start on the blocks with a childhood hero, where I will smash a shuttle down the throat of a feisty rival, where I will perform my most elegant routine yet. So the chest of my retired father back home will swell with pride.
Do not for a minute misunderstand me. A sanitised, watered-down Olympics, without fans in the stands, isn't how these men and women would have wanted it. In Rio, at my first experience of an Olympic Games, the pandemonium in the arena during P V Sindhu's Gold medal match still reverberates in my ears. I can still feel the delirious hugs we exchanged in the media box when Sakshi Malik ended the medal drought or the tears I couldn't stop when Dipa Karmakar produced barely believable contortions to nearly win a medal. The athletes undoubtedly themselves, feasted on that energy, that collective yearning, embracing the alliance between the supported and the supporters.
In Tokyo, while that spark will clearly be missing, when the moment arrives to produce the performance they have been training for their whole lives, they deserve nothing other than the opportunity to execute. The stands will be empty, ah how we wish they were full, but the moment will not reduce in significance. It will be the fitting culmination the years of toil deserve.
Writing in the Guardian, Greg Rutherford, the 2012 Olympics Long Jump Gold Medalist, made a fervent case on behalf of the athlete community, on why the Games must go on despite the challenges of the pandemic.
"It's about wanting the best athletes in the world to have the opportunity to display their talents on the biggest stage of all, so they can provide a better life for themselves and their families. It's about those 70% of athletes for whom Tokyo will be the only Games of their careers, fulfilling their childhood dreams, and hopefully inspire the next generation to do the same. And it's about the select few getting the chance to immortalise themselves as one of the greatest by becoming an Olympic champion."
And so, do this one for them. For these few days, look beyond the stark headlines and cold logic. Gather around TV screens, fly the flag, and paint your faces, whatever. Surrender in support of the men and women who have pursued the chance to experience this moment. Yeah, these are weird Olympics, hell they are even identified with a year that has already been consigned to history, but they can be just as rewarding.
For you, me, and most importantly, for the men and women who have earned the right to be there.
(Over the last 25 years, Gaurav Kalra has covered Cricket World Cups, Tennis Grand Slams, Olympics and interviewed some of the leading sportspersons in the world.)