Athletes aren’t orators and boxers are most eloquent with a gloved fist. Every Muhammad Ali left jab was a jolting interrogation. And yet athletes will occasionally surprise you with something plain yet poetic, encapsulate a life in a grim, terse sentence, and it will never leave you. Like Ruel Durano, whose face is a blur but whose words I once wrote about and can’t forget.

“I loved boxing, but boxing never loved me back."

We met in a Manila suburb in 2015 when Manny Pacquiao fought Floyd Mayweather Jr in Las Vegas, and Durano, an ex-fighter turned coach, a teller of stories of faster days and small purses, was 48 and still imprisoned by the ropes of a ring.

I thought of Durano because I had been having lunch with a Paralympic swimmer and we were talking about the forgotten, the unheralded athletes who fill the lanes and the ranking tables, the luckless and the dreamers, the so-close and the will-be, all mainly housed on the outskirts of fame.

Like Benjamin Pietri, 23, ranked No.1,079 on the ATP Tour, earnings $2,904 (around 2.07 lakh) this year, no picture available as if he’s faceless, accompanied by the words: “Unfortunately, we do not currently have any bio information for this player."

Uska time aayega? (Will his time come?)

Some athletes are forever almost-theres. But many do get there, to a place precious to them, to a first round in a Grand Slam, into a Ranji Trophy team, into an Olympics, earning a single national cap. Places that watchers tend to dismiss, places that people are snobbish about—“kitna Test khela?" (How many Test matches has he played?) is Indian sport’s most unpleasant phrase—but places that are so hard to get to.

Hard because of the jostling hordes, because there are over 1,000 women on the International Table Tennis Federation list, and over 1,600 men ranked on the ATP tennis tour, and an unranked line around the globe behind them. All trying to make a living, their self-worth determined by Monday’s new ranking list, recognizing each other’s dreams even as they try to step on them. There are only so many trophies.

Hard because of the suffocating standard. Last week, I stumbled across Riste Pandev, a Macedonian sprinter, who won his preliminary heat in the 100m at the 2016 Rio Olympics in 10.72 seconds, a season best. On his Instagram page, there’s a link to a video of his run, where he finishes fast, grins in triumph, looks up at the scoreboard, waiting for his name to appear. For this lovely, brief, unforgettable moment, he is first. Then a few hours later, in the round one heats, he timed 10.71, which is 0.01 seconds faster, but he was last and gone.

Hard because defeat is a frequent bully, leaving confidence bruised, wallets empty, yet they believe next week will be better, next month definitely, just dancing forever on the edge of relevance while trying to find that maddening, mysterious thing.

Your best.

Even Roger Federer spoke about this recently. “You want everybody to do well, and that’s why I am generally happy when somebody does well, because not everybody can attain whatever it is (they are aiming for), but what you can attain is the best of yourself.

“I think probably if you ask a lot of the guys on the Tour, they would say, ‘I probably did much better than I expected’, because the dream is, of course, to be Top 100, Top 10, World No. 1, winning tournaments and all that stuff. But to be able to make a living from what you wanted to do, I think that’s the cool bit."

And these athletes, on the margins looking in, whom you see walking behind the champion who is being interviewed on camera, whom no one stops for a selfie, are in fact the best interviewees, because they are shorn of ego, because they have a story and no one’s ever asked it.

And it’s an education to hang out with them, at practice, around changing rooms. One of the many reasons I admire journalist Sharda Ugra’s work is because she spent so much time just listening to Ranji Trophy players, spending long days in a time before mobile phones, understanding through them the viscera of sport, the small triumphs, the dusty dreams, the workings of the game.

Who sustains sport? In this over-worshipping time, we would say Serena Williams, Lionel Messi, Virat Kohli. But, really, it’s these people, the ones who contest the heats, who want one chance to play Federer, who share rooms on tour and load up on free breakfasts, who never ride on private jets but still don’t quit, who might be the pride of their small town because no one from there ever went so far, who, well, love sport even if it doesn’t always love them back.

Last year at the Asian Games, I wrote about Aishath Sausan, a cheerful mother from the Maldives who came last in the 200m backstroke but set a new national record. I emailed her this week and she, 31, told me she still trains in an ocean pool in the Maldives where eels appear, and sometimes garbage, because all she wants, just one time, is to get to the Olympics.

She told me she had been swimming since she was 9 and in a life of studies, marriage, two children and a five-year break, had never got to a Games. “So," she wrote about the Tokyo Olympics next year, “(I’m) really, really hoping that I could achieve my biggest dream this time." Even in the flat, unfeeling typeface of an email you can feel her desperation.

This August, Sausan went to the World Championships and finished 44th out of 48 competitors in the 50m backstroke, but she set another national record. An irrelevant statistic to you, but everything to her.

When it mattered, she had found her best.

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.

Twitter - @rohitdbrijnath

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