Conviction, investment, reinvention, goals and optimism -- while some sports are in mid-season, the month of January remains crucial for many athletes
Everything ends in sport but this is the month named after the Roman god Janus and he is the god of beginnings
In January, conviction. Five more pounds of muscle, top 10 ranking, Olympic gold, personal best, Everest summit, no burgers, flatter forehand. Not everyone will get there but there is little as beautiful as the wilful athlete.
In January, reinvention. To be better than your 2019 self is a sporting necessity and it begins with an act of imagination. Who do you want to be? Kidambi Srikanth tells me he’s searching for finer consistency. No more damn mistakes. Saurav Ghosal wants to believe in himself on the big points on the big stage against the very best. In their honesty you can feel their intensity.
“Improve" is a truth that nags at them more than an old ache. “How small did the gain have to be?" wrote the Olympic champion rower Steve Redgrave. “Virtually imperceptible, as long as it was a gain." So they will do those extra 20 push-ups this January. It doesn’t matter how good you are, everyone is catching up.
In January, nothing changes—some sports are in mid-season—and yet somehow it does. Your body hurt on 1 January just as it did on 31 December, same weights to lift, same no sugar, same 5.30am alarm, yet symbolically it’s a new year and there are only so many years. Even for Leander Paes, 46. This is his last January. Everything ends in sport but this is the month named after the Roman god Janus and he is the god of beginnings.
In January, investment. Michael Phelps used to speak about how he and coach Bob Bowman looked at his hard practices as deposits. Only on race day came the withdrawal. We should get more cameras into gyms and training venues in the off-season because sport is more than public performances. It’s the silent, lonely, unseen grind. The best story I heard all year was told to me last February and it was possibly about a moment in January.
It was Jonny Brownlee, the triathlete, talking about training on a snowy, -10 degrees Celsius day and falling with his bike into a frozen pond. “I had to ride an hour home," he told me. “I was so cold when I got home I couldn’t open the front door (with my hands). So I had to use my mouth to open the front door with the key."
In January, optimism. That the brave Megan Rapinoe will keep talking and provoke her fellow athletes into concerned action. Rapinoe isn’t here to just hoof a football but also kick up a necessary, thoughtful ruckus about racism and homophobia and equal pay. Subtle is not her scent. She’s not a brand, she’s an empathetic, outspoken human athlete. Up there, sparring with the angels, Muhammad Ali must be grinning. She’s his type of athlete.
In January, goals. Think of them as the scribble of ambition. Athletes write them down and sometimes put them away. Some stuff you won’t believe, which is why they won’t tell you. Other stuff is pledges they make when lying exhausted in bed.
Boxer Amit Panghal is going to work on his reach and power and pugilist Nikhat Zareen is going to practise throwing punches from a distance. So will cricketer Jemimah Rodrigues, in a manner of speaking: She’s working on developing her ability to clear the boundary ropes at will. Athletes keep reaching within themselves for more, and more, until one day there is nothing left.
Shooter Apurvi Chandela is going to try and start keeping a journal and since she, a shooter, is the concentrated cousin of the chess player, she could learn from Viswanathan Anand. In his book Mind Master—I am midway through—he writes about jotting down his impressions after a game, especially after a loss, “when the pain was raw and the sting was fresh". It was, he notes, “a brilliant way to funnel my emotions after a game—angst, remorse or delirium—and study the results objectively".
In January, design. Athletes will construct detailed calendars, chart diets, plan travel, decide when to taper, count the days to their event in the Olympics and yet so much will not go as planned.
In 1968, the gymnast Věra Čáslavská opposed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and—as The Complete Book Of The Olympics records—was “warned by friends she was in danger of arrest". So for three weeks, before the Olympics, she retreated into the hills and kept in “shape by swinging from tree limbs and practising her floor exercise in a meadow". At the Olympics, she won four golds.
In January, numbers. How much to bench press this year, what ranking to chase, points to earn, weight to maintain. Sometimes athletes don’t ask for much, just fractions will do. A swimmer tells me he needs to be 1.02 seconds faster to get to the Olympics. One lousy second which will require a perfect start, a perfect turn and perfect underwater work. He does 2,160km a year in practice but is going to be judged on 100 fast qualifying metres.
In January, a suggestion. Make a promise to enter stadiums early because anticipation is the first act of the sporting drama. The buzz; the building crowd; the footballers whose casual skill in warm-ups is breathtaking and rarely caught by cameras; the pitch walks by cricketers who resemble archaeologists at a dig looking for clues; the low, warning growl of an F1 car about to leave its cage; the rustle before the hush.
It’s January. Let’s play.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book, A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.