The bouncer is white, with a black bow tie and shoulders like slabs of timber nailed to his torso, and he’s walking towards me with that purposeful rolling gait of menace. Jesus. Now what? Now this.
“Kaamon aachen (How are you)?”
It’s 1996. I’m in a gentleman’s club. In Atlanta. Welcome to the Olympics. From a New Yorker speaking Bengali in the American South.
Atlanta is hot, corporate, soulless (not the warm chattiness of Sydney 2000 or the efficiency of Beijing 2008), but it’s still the Olympics, banquet of the breathtaking, and to choose what to watch is in fact deciding what to miss. If I sneak into the pool full of winged aquatic creatures, then there’s a gymnast across town doing a twisting somersault on a beam the width of my hand and landing as if into wet cement.
Somewhere in this mad maelstrom of talent were the Indians, officials with feeble knowledge and hockey players who have the look of men who know their obituaries are being composed. There was an awkwardness once of a nation trying to compete and shrug off intimidation and now it has gone.
Hall of fame: Greg Louganis before his springboard gold in Seoul 1988. Photo: Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images
The Olympics is cluttered, crowded, chaotic. Its pomp can be pretentious and it does less for world harmony than a protest by Lefties with placards. It leaves nations with stadiums that are empty monuments to excess and comes with a bill so inflated it possibly explains why it’s never gone to Africa and is only now on its way to South America. It is bruised by cheating, has turned the lighting of the flame into a cheesy competition and is speckled with fatuous chest-beating by nations over medal tables.
Its starting blocks are nailed to the same line, yet technologically there is no evenness. Hurdler Lolo Jones recently used 22 technicians and biomechanists and 40 high-speed, motion-capture cameras to try and cut a fraction of a second from her timing; elsewhere Timor-Leste marathon runner Augusto Ramos Soares trains in torn shoes. Yet, for all this, I relish the Games for nothing in sport, nothing, offers such a compelling, constant, contrasting high.
The Olympics offers a unique diversity: Its collection of athletes covers both talent and geography. It gathers the best of the world like Michael Phelps and the best from various worlds like Eric the Eel. Participation is an archaic concept in a winning world, but here it still breathes. Maybe the amateur in us warms to tales of stadiums rising for last place finishers, maybe the romantic within is moved when a bleeding, bandaged John Stephen Akhwari finishes the 1968 marathon when the stadium is emptying and darkness fallen, only to say: “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me to finish the race.”
Michael Phelps won eight gold medals in Beijing 2008 and is chasing seven in London 2012. Photo: Harry How/Getty Images
The Olympics’ intriguing width lies not only in human representation but also in sports contested. Even here a caste system operates. Track outshines trampoline and gold medallist swimmers may end up on Wheaties box while champion judokas may be restricted to supermarket openings. Yet their platform is similar, so is their prize and the champion canoeist for once is Rafael Nadal’s equal. We are, depending on our geographies, children of football and baseball, cricket and rugby, Formula One and Nascar. But the Games as an advertisement for and education in the varied skills of humankind are priceless. If it did not exist, we might be unfamiliar with diver Greg Louganis, that Nijinsky of the air, ignorant of the consistent skills of boxer Teófilo Stevenson, unaware of the pixieish perfection of Nadia Comaneci and oblivious to the enduring power of Steve Redgrave.
The Games have triggered my fascination from the time grainy footage appeared in the Indian News Review in cinemas and my father shouted “kreegah bundolo” and pointed out that Tarzan and Flash Gordon were fictional figures played by men who were heroic in real life. The first, Johnny Weissmuller, won five swimming golds; the second, Buster Crabbe, won one. To continue the theme, presumably Ryan Lochte will now play the lead in Iron Man 3. Indeed, in his quest to beat Phelps and find his own history, he has been hauling a 450-pound (around 205kg) chain across a road and flipping 650-pound tyres in training. And even he’s a wuss in the face of fellows who run the hideous 1,500m after finishing nine other events over two days.
Cuba’s Teófilo Stevenson, who died recently, won the heavyweight gold in Moscow 1980. Photo: Allsport UK /Allsport
Decathletes, my father insisted, deserved two gold medals and certainly the sobriquet that King Gustaf V of Sweden gave Jim Thorpe in 1912: “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.” These men we know of, but really only recognize at an Olympics.
These are not normal people, this is a fraternity of the fiendish and the freakish, possibly from the time Pythagoras reportedly hung around as a team physician looking for a winning angle. Gymnast Olga Korbut, whom I spoke to last week, used to count her sips of water during practice. Triple jumper Chuhei Nambu studied how horses moved and frogs leapt. Abhinav Bindra went skydiving two weeks ago to test himself and another shooter once trained while lying on an anthill. And so much of what they do, and how far they push, comes back to this:
Czech Emil Zátopek is one of the legends of long-distance running. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Time makes the Olympian irresistible to me. As burdens go, it is an extraordinary one, the idea that opportunity for them, and judgement on them, arrives only every four years. These athletes, especially those not in our weekend focus, have world championships, European tournaments, pan-American contests, but this Games is truly their time. Their only time.
In this time, these four years, Roger Federer and Tiger Woods will compete for 16 major trophies, Lionel Messi will play over 150 club games, Lewis Hamilton will race roughly 80 times. Failure in these sports offers the opportunity of quick redemption, but the Olympian is limited. He has one chance, often two, possibly three, occasionally four. His life is waiting for the cycle to turn, his life is sustaining greatness. It is no good finding excellence in 2009, you must hold it, burnish it till the next Games arrives, replicate it in 2012. Right on an appointed date at a specific time, which can be roughly 5 minutes if you’re a gymnast, or 10 seconds for a sprinter, and there’s no margin for error, just none, for if you fall off a beam, or hesitate at a start, then that’s it, sayonara, see you in...four years.
Russian gymnast Olga Korbut was one of the stars of Munich 1972. Photo: Michael Fresco/Evening Standard/Getty Images
There is no second serve here. In 1996, Australian cyclist Shane Kelly is thinking a medal in the time trial and then his foot slips off the pedal. At the start. That’s it, that’s enough. His Games is over. In 2004, a hurdler stumbles in the finals and knocks into Irina Shevchenko in the next lane and her Games is done. Misfortune is hardly exclusive to the Olympics, but the cost seems harsher.
Last week I found the story of a Canadian decathlete, leading his trials after nine events and then destroyed by cramps in his last event and missing out on London. Even in cold print you could feel his agony: “Am I willing to go another four years?”
Russia’s Irina Shevchenko (in white and blue) after a collision in the women’s 100m hurdles final in Athens 2004. Photo: Stuart Hannagan/Getty Images
The pressure to be perfect, the pressure of investment made, the pressure of another chance so far away is an extraordinary driver. In 1992, world champion sculler Silken Laumann has an accident in practice, her leg is torn apart, ligaments sliced, muscles severed, tendons sawed. It is 78 days before the Games. Laumann will not give up and years later she will say: “We all had a dream. At any given moment of the day, we could close our eyes and we could imagine ourselves on an Olympic medal podium.” She limps back into the boat, she trains and with her last few strokes she wins bronze in Barcelona. Years before, in 1976, this madness afflicts gymnast Shun Fujimoto. He breaks his knee during the team gymnastics competition, yet finishes, does his ring dismount with a somersault on to that knee, helps Japan win gold. Yet later, when asked if he would have done it had he known what the pain would be, he said this: “No.”
There will be another story like this in London. There always is. There is always crying, too, from the fourth place finisher, from last place, from the champion and mostly they will say these are tears of “relief”, for it is the overpowering emotion. Made it to the Olympics. Made it to a podium. Four years come to something. Finally. Then they will put their medals in a safe, auction them off to help children with leukaemia, keep them under their beds in plastic bread bags.
All stars: Silken Laumann of Canada won bronze in Barcelona 1992. Photo: Mike Powell/Allsport
Sometimes they go a little further. The great Australian runner Ron Clarke, breaker of endless world records, never wins Olympic gold. Then he goes to Prague to compete in 1966, invited by Emil Zatopek, and as he leaves for home, he is given a package by his host. In the plane, he unwraps it. It is one of Zatopek’s four gold medals. It is respect.
Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Straits Times, Singapore.
Write to Rohit at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also Read | Rohit’s previous Lounge columns