To the sports fan who admires Dipa Karmakar, and beats his chest proudly over Sakshi Malik and insists P.V. Sindhu has restored national pride, can I very politely ask: Have you ever watched them live? Or their peers? Gone to a stadium? Been to a nationals? Or a zonal event? Sat in crap seats but seen up close that a gymnastics beam, on which they do somersaults with a twist, is so bloody high?
I walked on one once and got off rather quickly. Made me think of pirates and planks.
I don’t ask these questions of the sports fan—who might prefer a kachori in front of the TV, or to fly to Sydney to watch Virat Kohli—to embarrass him/her, but to raise a minor point. I don’t know how to fix an ancient civilization’s uncertain romance with sport. I have no idea how to build a sports culture. But I do know that among the best gifts you can offer an athlete is presence.
BMWs for athletes are terrific. Presumably, someone offered the medallists a flat. And a year’s supply of an unhealthy beverage. Any recognition is useful in cricketland. But then the nationalism fades and another Karmakar somewhere will perform to the accusing silence of empty stands.
Pullela Gopi Chand, that polite savant with a sergeant-major’s heart, tells me that roughly “200 people” comprised the daily attendance at the last badminton nationals. Abhinav Bindra says almost nobody outside the shooting community came to watch his nationals.
Rudraneil Sengupta, who works for Mint and has just written a very fine book on wrestling called Enter The Dangal, says people do come and watch the nationals, but “the audience is mostly wrestlers, coaches, families, and sometimes lots of people from a certain wrestler’s village. Casual spectators are rare.”
It’s a pity because if athletes are always playing for something, they also want to play for somebody (it’s easier to chase something if somebody is out there). The crowd never comes alone either; it brings pressure and inspiration and partly validates an athlete’s life-choice. Athletes wear pain in practice because they’re searching for perfection, but also applause. Roger Federer, that limping thespian, often speaks of the power of occasion and how performing in grand arenas to those calling his name keeps him in tennis. Like many athletes, he is a show-off of the nicest kind.
Local gymnastics is not quite the equivalent of Federer, yet what an experience it could be for fans is unknown because very few people have been to see it, and what it can mean to athletes is uncertain for many have never had 500 people sit before them.
Attendance isn’t a fundamental duty, but in all the debates over officials, funding, facilities, expertise, coverage—“the front page of the newspaper is local news, but the sports page is international news,” says Gopi Chand—perhaps there is also a tiny role to be played through public participation. The “sports culture” India seeks cannot surely be everyone else’s responsibility.
This isn’t about some grim responsibility; this is about the joy of being a fan. Which is about preferences and entertainment, but also about enthusiasm and intrigue and the understanding that the best dramas are “live”. What does a Produnova feel like from 30ft? From proximity is revealed difficulty, which breeds respect.
The more I watch, the more I appreciate the specific skills of lesser-known tribes. I am not alone in my awe. The brilliant Sharda Ugra has written on sport for 27 years, but was nevertheless astonished this year to discover at close range how far the uneven bars were from each other. She checked and found they were between 5-6ft apart. Karmakar is not quite 5ft.
I did not know this about the uneven bars. I did not know, till a few 140kg-plus weight-lifters in Rio—one of whom ate two chickens for breakfast—tutored me, that speed was a fundamental virtue of lifting weights. I did not know that big men could squat so low or were moved to kiss barbells. I did not know, till a few weeks ago, that when one synchronized diver has an off day, the other tries to compensate by spinning slower in the air. I did not know that shooters stood as still as vertical corpses till I observed Bindra at work.
No doubt I have access and get to attend major Games and watching the best in the world even at folding sheets is an elevating experience. But if you can find out when the next local event is being held in your city and sit in front of a weightlifter, shooter, fencer, you’ll learn something. You might discover how poorly a sport is run, or better appreciate the risks gymnasts take, or feel the unique tension of proximity, or understand the speed of hockey, which cameras can’t convey.
For that day you will give a judoka or swimmer something precious. An audience. And if that inspires them even slightly, imagine this: One might say, in a very small way, that you helped an athlete find their best.
Rohit Brijnath is a columnist with The Straits Times, Singapore