Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

There’s more to the Olympics than winning medals

Dattu Bhokanal may not be bringing back a medal from Rio, but the plucky Indian rower is surely not returning 'empty-handed'

There’s a story making the rounds, as these things go at Olympics time, about an Indian athlete at Rio. The gist is this much: he’s a young onion farmer in a drought-stricken village in Maharashtra. His father dies in 2012 and the young man joins the army. Someone suggests he try rowing, which he does, mindful that it might be a route to promotions and more money for the family.

One thing leads to another and he actually qualifies for the Rio Olympics, the only Indian in the rowing events there. His event is the single sculls, a 2km race in a long slim boat that you propel with two oars.

On the second day of the Games, Dattu Bhokanal qualified for the quarter-finals in the single sculls.

I don’t know Bhokanal and I had never heard of him until a few weeks before these Olympics began. I suspect that applies to most of you reading this too. But I have been thinking of him over the past few days. Not so much because he reached the quarter-finals, though. I thought of him because I read this now infamous comment about our athletes at Rio from Shobhaa De:

“Goal of Team India at the Olympics: Rio jao. Selfies lo. Khaali haat wapas aao. What a waste of money and opportunity."

(Translation of the Hindi in case you need it: “Go to Rio. Take selfies. Come back empty-handed.")

Was that Bhokanal’s goal, I wondered? Did he go to Rio to take selfies?

Last Saturday, Bhokanal came third in his heat to make it to the quarter-finals, finishing in a time of 7 minutes, 21.67 seconds. That was the 17th-fastest time in the heats. In a real sense, you could say that in his chosen event on that day, Bhokanal was the 17th-fastest man in the world.

Stop for a moment to let the magnitude of that sink in. Many years ago, David Foster Wallace wrote a memorable, moving essay about the tennis player Michael Joyce. Joyce was then ranked 79th in the world, too low to draw much attention from tennis fans, the kind of ranking that often attracts the label “journeyman". Still, Wallace describes Joyce’s game and skills with a rare passion and insight, painting a vivid picture of what it’s like to play a sport at a high level.

He also writes: “You are invited to try to imagine what it would be like to be among the hundred best in the world at something. At anything. I have tried to imagine; it’s hard."

In much the same way, you are invited to try to imagine what it would be like to be the 17th-fastest in the world at something—that is, what it would be like to have done what Bhokanal did last Saturday. I mean, there are nearly 7 billion people on this planet. What is it like to be ranked 17th among them at something?

Like Wallace, I have tried to imagine. I am still trying as I write this. Yes, it’s hard.

Then came the single sculls quarter-finals, on Tuesday. There were four of them, with six rowers in each; the top three rowers in each race would qualify for the semi-finals. Bhokanal was in the fourth and last race. He finished fourth. That was the end of his campaign for medals in Rio.

Even so, it’s worth looking at his quarter-final performance a little more closely. To start with, he finished the 2km in 6:59.89. That’s nearly 22 seconds—5%!—better than his time in his heat. Now, of course, it’s true that athletes rarely push themselves in the heats, that they tend to buckle down and perform better through each round and as the competition stiffens. So, you would only expect that Bhokanal would improve his time. Well, that 22 seconds is how much he did improve.

But there’s more. Bhokanal was less than two seconds slower than the last—the 12th—man who qualified for the semi-finals. To put that in perspective, nearly 18 seconds separated the fastest qualifier, Damir Martin of Croatia, and the 12th man—and Bhokanal was just two seconds further out. Not just that much, either. In the heats, Bhokanal actually had a better time than Martin (7:23.08). To me, this little detail says, loud and clear, that Bhokanal belonged in this company.

And finally, the overall standings after the quarter-finals told a small story too. Last Tuesday, Bhokanal was no longer the 17th-fastest single sculler in the world. He was the 15th-fastest.

Once again, you are invited to try to imagine what it would be like... you get the idea.

I don’t know how Bhokanal felt on Tuesday, but I imagine he might find a kindred spirit in Robel Habte, a swimmer from Ethiopia. In a land-locked country that has a celebrated tradition of long-distance running, Habte chose to swim competitively.

Also on Tuesday in Rio, he finished last in his 100m freestyle prelim race. But reports say the crowd “cheered him on as he finished", and he later told the media: “I am so happy because it is my first competition in the Olympics. So, thanks for god."

I don’t know Habte, of course. But I get the feeling he doesn’t think he is returning to Ethiopia “empty-handed".

As for Bhokanal, his mother is in the ICU of a hospital in Pune. So, he may have had that on his mind too, during those minutes when he improved to 15th-fastest on Earth. See, I don’t know her either. But I get the feeling that, when her son comes home from Rio, she too won’t think he has returned “empty-handed".

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.

His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

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