What will these Olympics be about? Four years ago,Beijing ushered in the competition with an implied bid to host the grandest,most efficiently run Summer Games in history,and to conquer that stage by walking away with the most gold medals. And it did. London,in contrast,appears uncertain,even apologetic. By the time the city works out the hours lost to traffic snarls,the billions of pounds in sports infrastructure unresolved by legacy plans,and the (admittedly transient) happiness quotient that could accrue to the host,the Games could well be over. Hopefully,once the opening ceremony commences,the city will set aside the ledger for long enough to take in the action. At least you,dear reader,should for,as the ancients understood so well,the Olympic Games are essentially a summons to observe human endeavour and drama.
Wind down your normal routines enough to observe,and you may understand why we applaud the necessary vanity that compels cities to host the Olympics as a means of renewal,successfully or not. After all,somebody has to provide the extravagant stage for the competition every so many years,a special stage,as the 1996 Atlanta bronze medallist in the womens marathon put it,where people of high ability can compete,delight and grieve.
Delight and grief. At the Olympics,these are the two emotions that provide depth to the ranking tables,which rapidly roll across the television screens,that separate the event from world championships and grand slams,that thread together the stories of the competitions. Forget the stories,and we render irrelevant the Olympics. Forget the stories,and we fail to understand why a world champion without an Olympics medal can cut such a tragic figure.
So with David Wallechinskys The Complete Book of the Olympics,all 1,334 pages of the 2012 edition,in hand,here is a run-through of some of the stories of past Games that suggest a few weeks of magic to come.
My favourite story takes in the greatness of a sporting tradition in a country,the exceptional character of its adherents and a quote guaranteed to move me to tears. At Rome in 1960,Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia ran the marathon barefoot,having already marked on the route an obelisk stolen by the Italians from his country as the point at which to begin his final move,and registered a world best. Ethiopians would never be out of contention in the long-distance running ever again,and decades later would find in Haile Gebrselassie their most charismatic star.
By the time the Athens Games began in 2004,Gebrselassie had already won the 10,000 metres gold medal twice but had recently lost the world championship title to fellow Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele. As befitted a dominant force in the 10,000 m at Athens,the two of them ran in a pack along with compatriot Sileshi Sihine. In Wallechinskys account of the race,by the halfway point the trio were leading with only the most serious contenders in the fray behind them. Then Gebrselassie slowed down,and so did Bekele. He later said,We wanted him with us. It was only with three laps remaining (in a 25-lap race) that Bekele and Sihine broke away from the defending champion,recording a gold and silver finish. But they waited at the finish line for Gebrselassie,who finished fifth,keeping him with them for the victory lap.
Now,in 2012,Bekele is chasing a third 10,000 m Olympic gold,to go one ahead of greats like Paavo Nurmi,Emil Zatopek and,of course,Gebrselassie. Indeed,at Beijing in 2008,Bekele won the 5,000 m gold along with the 10,000 m.
Tirunesh Dibaba won the gold in the womens 5,000 m and 10,000 m races at Beijing too. Like Gebrselassie and Bekele,she hails from the Ethiopian town of Bekoji. But her feat does more than honour East Africas dominance in long-distance running. It suitably mocks the patriarchy that sustained a 32-year ban on races for women longer than 200 m after competitors in the 800 m competition at the 1928 Games in Amsterdam fainted. In fact,equality of opportunity to compete in as many events as men has accrued to women rather gradually. At London,they are finally allowed to take part in boxing (though in just three categories),casting special focus on Indias most deserving entrant,Mary Kom.
But Amsterdam 1928 too it was that saw India win the first of its eight golds in field hockey. That dominance is long past,but Wallechinsky harks back to the Berlin Olympics in 1936 when India,after having marched behind the British flag,raised the Tricolour in the dressing room as a nationalist assertion. He also underlines the point that Britain avoided fielding a hockey team against India while it was its colony. Only in 1948 did they meet at the Olympics,with Britain losing to India in the final.
After a disastrous run through the qualifiers,Indias hockey team failed to make it to Beijing. In its absence,India nonetheless won three individual medals,its largest haul at the Olympics ever,and each had an older story that gave their victories context. The stories of the three medals are riveting. Abhinav Bindra,the man who lost out at Athens due to a defect in the floor,grabbed the gold and laconically clarified he had shot better four years earlier. Sushil Kumar eagerly embraced the second chance allotted to him under the new rule of repechage,whereby a previous loss that day to an eventual finalist gave him a chance to compete for bronze. Virender Kumar got a bronze in boxing,and recalled the tears he had wept in 2000,when at Sydney Gurcharan Singh had lost a chance in the semifinal (and a guarantee of a medal) on a countback.
In coming days,Usain Bolt and Yelena Isinbayeva and Michael Phelps may or may not fulfil their promise of further greatness. Either way,whether it be in delight or in grief,they and their fellow Olympians will consolidate a legacy of stories that should keep us going for another four years.
Mini Kapoor is a Delhi-based writer,firstname.lastname@example.org
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