Amidst rising cases connected to people involved with the Tokyo Olympic Games, even the five Olympic rings may move away from each other in a symbolic show of distancing.
Tokyo 2020 can be described in many ways, this comes nearest in capturing the mood of a sanitised, sterilized Games. Japan, the host nation, embraced the challenge of organising a sporting competition without the fans, in grand stadiums bringing out the best in participants.
The absence of colourful faces in the stands, colourful flags waved about, has ceased to be a bother for competitors from different countries assembled, once the focus shifted to the action. Many of these participants have trained five years or more to get close to the national shortlist and no pandemic raging worldwide is going to keep them away from fulfilling the ambition of going home with an Olympic medal around their neck.
The conditions imposed by safety measures on the participants now in Tokyo are like the hurdle in the path of runners before the water jump in a 3000m steeplechase. There is no alternative but to clear the hurdle, step into the water before regaining stride on the track again. The steeplechase is a tough event and taxing in many aspects, at the same time these are stranger times to be an Olympian….training in isolation, travelling restrictions, frequent testing….have to be suffered before the privilege of competing can be enjoyed.
The self-imposed, often mandatory curbs in a bubble can get on the nerves. For the competitor there is no alternative but to block out the oppressive thoughts, then switch on the mind when the curtains go up and the stage is revealed, as it happened in Mirabai Chanu’s case.
From the Indian point of view, the weightlifter is a living example of never-say-die approach, never giving up on sporting dreams, even if the thought of a previous Olympic no-show gives you nightmares.
She faced the height of embarrassment on debut in Rio 2016, recorded no lift in the event she was chosen for, from among many others in contention to represent India. A lesser person in Mirabai’s place could have given up weightlifting, unable to withstand the awkwardness before an international audience far away in Brazil, apart from the curiosity in a nation back home when the DNF (did not finish) in 2016 became a point of discussion wherever she went.
To explain her situation using an everyday example, it is like our child or sibling, suffering from stage fright at her/his first major entrance examination or a job interview far away from home. The live telecast of weightlifting put the weightlifter’s family into the spotlight for their daughter’s failure, due to reasons beyond anybody’s control. Undeterred, she was eager for a second attempt at resurrecting her career and proving her worth amidst the world’s elite.
Four years of waiting for Tokyo 2020, one more year of waiting before the delayed Games took off, is enough time to drain the energy in mind and body. Mirabai waited and waited when all had given up hope on her.
She refused to accept adversity, got her mind and body tuned for competition and was ready to lift the weight of expectations, her own and the nation’s, when the next big opportunity arrived.
The Olympics medal is a small reward for the massive sacrifices made by the 26-year-old post-Rio and by her parents in their village near to Imphal, fired up by the sight of light at the end of a dark tunnel.
After the 49kg event was over, she was captured folding hands into a namaste. This is the time for India as a nation to express our collective salaam in gratitude to Mirabai who gave the best 10 years of her life for the country, without knowing where it will end.
Few among the hordes cheering for the silver medallist (at airports or via online posts) were aware of the penance through pain the weightlifter bore all these years at NIS, Patiala, before flying back from Tokyo with a coveted piece of metal. She rarely visited home and parents in Manipur, so focussed was this determined daughter of India was on doing everything and anything humanly possible to make up for the Rio disaster.
Then came the lockdown frustrations due to a disrupted schedule of competitions and restriction everywhere on doing things we take for granted. Let us look at those Olympians making their debut at Tokyo, stumbling in their struggle to prove themselves worthy of India, through the prism of Mirabai’s redemption for the DNF at Rio five years later. Talent alone is not always enough to finish among the first three on the Olympics stage, be it archery or shooting, swimming or table tennis, boxing or fencing. India’s first medallist from the Games proved the value of experience and struggle.
Let us also give the teenagers their space, be patient with them through years of preparation alone, with only the coach and support staff for the company, before being held accountable for lifting the weight of a nation’s expectations.