The news that Michael Phelps will go to the Rio Olympics came with a celebratory aside: He was going to be the first male US swimmer to compete in five Olympics. In late June, Phelps came through the water at the US swimming trials in Omaha, Nebraska, his palm splayed, showing the No.5. It was Phelps’ 31st birthday, and he had just won the 200m butterfly, his first race at the trials.
Today, Phelps stands as an Olympic totem of both excellence and endurance. Till now, there were only 13 swimmers among the 475-plus athletes who have made it to five or more Olympics—Phelps is the 14th. No athlete has won more Olympics medals than Phelps’ 22—in three Games, between Athens 2004 and London 2012. He was 15 when he turned up in Sydney 2000, finishing fifth in the 200m butterfly. Everyone remembers his eight golds in Beijing 2008 and almost forgets the six medals (four golds and two silvers) in London 2012.
In Rio, he will compete as a first-time father to a two-month-old, racing in the 100m and 200m butterfly and the 200m individual medley, and it should be safe to say, in the three relays as well.
For sheer consistency among individual athletic achievements, Phelps’ Five breathes rare air. His Olympian feats turn the de Coubertin ideal of the nobility of “participation” on its head, stretching beyond even victory, towards the constantly retreating finish line of excellence. Maybe achievement of such scale is available only to individual athletes from finely tuned sporting machines. Like Phelps’ and US swimming or like Larissa Latynina, the athlete who previously held the record for being the most successful Olympic medallist—18 in three Games, from 1956-68, who was a product of the Soviet gymnastics juggernaut.
India’s own Olympic tryst is at a different place on a different sporting timeline. Over the past decade, India’s Olympic presence has moved from mere participation to a striving for tangible success—a personal best, a new national record, a place on the podium. The biggest change in India’s sporting ethos in the 21st century is an expansion of athletic standards: from multiple national titles to competing and succeeding on the world stage. Olympic medals in shooting, wrestling, boxing and badminton mean that Olympic participation alone will no longer be considered the apex of our achievement.
It is why the fuss over Leander Paes’ seventh Olympics seems like a throwback to an earlier, less aspirational age. Paes’ selection for his seventh Olympics became one of Indian tennis’ familiar high-emotion, low-yield soap operas.
He was to say, “I have loved playing for my flag…even though some of these Grand Slams have my name written on it, in brackets it has got India…. My seventh Olympics might be a personal record for me, but it is actually a historical record for India to have the world record of any athlete playing in the game of tennis…. Now that I am on the threshold of the Olympics, there is no greater honour than to go and create a world record for India in having played seven Olympics in a row.”
Let’s stop sniffing, dry our eyes and examine those words. To start with, Paes’ seventh is nowhere near a “world record”. He is three Olympics and 12 more years away. The maximum number of Olympics in a row by any individual athlete is 10. Canadian horseman Ian Millar won a single silver in four decades of competition. Paes already holds the record for the maximum Olympics by any Indian athlete—six till London 2012. Olympics No.6 was also a tennis “world” record—most Olympics by any tennis player—ahead of the Fivers: Mark Knowles, Daniel Nestor and Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario.
The 2016 “world record” will be established with the teary eyes of the sentimentally clueless, but little else. In a practical assessment, the world-record seventh is pretty much personal bean-counting. If that world record is to be improved, with Paes heading out for his eighth in Tokyo, Japan, in 2020—don’t laugh, it’s possible—we will once again hear some familiar Paesean tropes: flag, nation, pride, honour.
Now to the flag, because much about Paes flows from it. Few under 30 will remember Paes from the time when he played his first two Olympics—1992 and 1996 (when he won a bronze). The first Olympic medal for India in 16 years, the first by an individual at the Games in 44 years. Paes was at the time a spit and fire singles player who came into his own in team competition.
In a diffident, self-effacing India, there were few before him who thumped the chest, roared at the crowd and waved the flag, wearing his patriotism, unfashionable at the time, like a power-charging invisibility cloak. Every year, India would turn up at the high table of the Davis Cup World Group, banging the cutlery and rattling the crockery. Led by an adrenalin-pumping, gut-busting crazy kid with lightning in his heels and razors in his wrists. We didn’t have top 100 players, but we had game. That flag stuff was not populist rhetoric, it came with performances and results. In Paes’ first 10 years as a Davis Cupper, India played World Group ties in eight. He had singles wins over Goran Ivanisevic, Wayne Ferreira, Henri Leconte, Arnaud Boetsch and Jakob Hlasek. On a mad July weekend in 1993, India beat France in France on clay, in a Davis Cup World Group quarter-final match.
India’s Davis Cup performances now belong to the Asia Oceania Zone Group I, its leading players devoting their lives to doubles, with titles at Grand Slam events being equated with “Grand Slams”. Paes has earned his stature from a much decorated past in both singles and doubles. As a travelling tennis professional, he is entitled to give tennis’ “flag events” a pass. Like he did in 2012, choosing to play for the Washington Kastles in World Team Tennis rather than the India vs New Zealand Davis Cup tie in Chandigarh. To once again lean on the flag, however, and rouse a clamour over his world-record seventh somehow rings a little hollow.
To think that the jousting over Paes’ seventh Olympics was taking place when the Sushil Kumar-Narsingh Yadav drama was at its height. India’s most successful Olympian—three Games, two medals—will not be going to Rio. The Wrestling Federation of India, hardly the most efficient sports body in the country, held its ground over procedure, despite a huge outcry and support for Kumar, followed by a set of court hearings.
Yes, comparing tennis and wrestling, or Paes and Kumar, is apples versus oranges territory. Yet, which of the two has a better chance of winning a Rio medal—which is what going to an Olympics now means for Indian athletes—is not in doubt. It is the one who has been left behind.
As the rest of our sport pushes ahead, trying to break through traditional barriers, glass ceilings and limited vision, Indian tennis’ kerfuffle over world-record Olympic appearances ends up looking like resolute retreat towards a mirage.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor, Espn.in.