Athletes are matter-of-fact masochists. Last fortnight, motorcycle rider Chris Vermeulen, all laconic lunacy, says after a crash: “I don’t need any stitches or surgery because the end of my toe was burnt when it was grinding on the road in the crash and that sealed the wound.”
Athletes mostly don’t like to talk pain. Maybe it’s a macho thing. Maybe it nibbles at them so insistently, soreness visiting like a familiar friend, that they’re used to it. Maybe it’s an intensely personal battle, a test of will we’d never understand.
After the first one-dayer against Bangladesh, in which cramp assaulted him in the sucking humidity, Mahendra Singh Dhoni said: “The pain was not really too much.” Sure it was. But Dhoni, smartly, bravely, kept his composure through the pain. And this is tough. As hockey player Viren Rasquina explains, “It’s hard to play knowing you’re not at your best, your mind gets diverted by injury.”
Rahul Dravid, best friends with cramps because he could sweat in a freezer, is familiar with using will to hold pain at bay, and thus deeply admires the “sheer bloody-mindedness” of Dhoni’s innings: “He could have chucked it in, he could have gone for big shots, but he kept doing the hard work.” Dravid knows Dhoni was satisfied, for he “tested himself not only against his opponent, but his own body and mind. All sportsmen want to do that”.
Cricket usually doesn’t disturb the pain meter. Not like the Tour de France, whose insanity was once revealed by cyclist Stephen Hodge. You know why we shave legs? he asked. To help get gravel out after a fall and prevent infection. You use a brush and “scrub the wound”. It bleeds, the gravel emerges. Nice. Hodge once faints in the shower doing this.
Still, Dhoni’s distress was educational because it was one of the rare obvious demonstrations of an athlete playing in pain. One of the great divides between spectator and athlete is the understanding of pain. Skill, we can comprehend, pain, we can’t because we don’t see it, because we have no concept of what it takes to endure it, and so we fail to appreciate it. We forget that even the average athlete is born of suffering.
Pain is not just broken jaw and busted rib. Pain isn’t just Rasquina getting hit by a ball while rushing out for a penalty corner (remember the ball’s moving faster than Brett Lee can hurl it and Rasquina’s at a closer distance than a batsman and without any padding). No, pain, athletes tell us, is often less dramatic, just there, a part of the athlete’s everyday diet.
Rasquina believes the “public will never understand what elite sportsmen go through”. He talks of going to sleep in pain, hoping it will go by morning. But it hasn’t. Still, there are miles to run. Most dawns hold the promise of suffering and former All-England champion Pullela Gopichand wonders if people can fathom that. “The body is tired, but you push yourself to training. No one is watching, no awards to win, but you’re just pushing yourself. You’re looking for some achievement beyond time and willing to go through pain for it”.
How willing? In 1995, at the All England Championships, Gopichand wins a late night match, gets back to his hotel at 1.30am, there’s no food, he sleeps, rises sore, wins in the morning, and then he cramps, so badly he tears a quadriceps muscle, and even now he can remember screaming. But there’s a match in the afternoon. He plays that, too.
Athletes run, puke, wipe it, go on. Pain is an addiction, yet also an enemy. Few athletes enjoy the days when the body is drained and quits, or when pain comes in the form of a torn tendon that derails their dreams.
That’s bad pain, but there is also a good pain, a pain that Gopichand calls “a pleasure”. It can come in training when you push further, chasing down your dream, proud that even as the muscles weep and the lungs flame, you do those extra 50 push-ups.
It comes on the field, too. As Rasquina puts it: “At the end of the game, five to 10 minutes left, you’re still physically pushing, no strength in the legs, no breath, but you’re surviving on adrenalin, that’s a really, really great feeling.”
Some days, the athlete’s suffering is ugly, some days, sweet. Either way, the pain that arrives with watching our team lose doesn’t quite compare.
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