Updated: July 23, 2021 4:41:14 pm
It was in one of the cavernous arches of the London Stadium where West Ham Utd now play, that I caught the men’s 800m men’s race of the London Olympics on a mute TV screen. What had me glued was panic-stricken inertia – the default setting of most journalists covering the Games. Fans toggling between shooting and archery and weightlifting happening simultaneously this time, have my empathy.
Caught in the middle of two epic events at diametrically distant venues, you end up missing both because you want to be everywhere, and you’ve missed the transport shuttle bus by two minutes. And there’s no Professor McGonagall’s TimeTurner that can help you be at several places at the same time, like the one Hermione was gifted.
So there I was in the Mixed Zone of the Track & Field stadium one evening, caught one more time in my Libran dilemma of whether to stay put for Usain Bolt’s 200m or try and wing some late hockey. It’s in that paralysed state of indecision that I stood rivetted by the Kenyan David Rudisha, running the two-lap race, and shredding the script by not slowing down at all, rendering the last kick redundant.
The long, loping, limby Kenyan took off and never stopped, and in those 1 minute 40.91 seconds, I was exactly where I ought’ve been. Transfixed to a TV set with no commentary and no noise of the dinning crowd, taking in the beauty of a perfectly striding runner, in a wordcount and deadline-free 2 minute break. A certain Usain Bolt would later concur that even his best training over 400 metres might not be enough to beat the dazzling Rudisha. Sitting cross-legged on the last seat of the next shuttle bus an hour later, I’d happily hammer away at a chunky 900-worder on that beautiful race.
It was also the Olympics where I watched an entire MC Mary Kom bout, following the rhythmic patterns of her dancing legs in the square ring. Sure, jabs, hooks and combination punches make a boxer, but on that day I wanted to know how Mary teases and taunts and dodges the bigger women in the confining ring, without her legs ever looking caged.
Guessing shoe sizes of assorted athletes at the Olympics became a bee in the bonnet. I’m sure far more important happenings were taking place elsewhere but in service of one tiny detail in a story, I’d waited an hour to ask “what’s the shoe size?” to the towering discus thrower Vikas Gowda in another mixed zone outing.
Wearing two different colours (and grippings) on separate feet, he shouldn’t really have been taken aback by that harmless poser. But a male TV journalist lurking close behind pounced on the opportunity while Gowda was still looking down at his sneakers as if noticing for the first time their mis-matchedness, to pop the absolutely irreverent and irrelevant question: “Aap Shaadi kab karenge?” Had never seen a 6’8″ giant so stricken by a question. Not knowing how to fill up this awkward pause as the big man regained composure, I resumed looking down at the shoes again. Answer: Size 15.
Back to back Olympics – London and then Rio – also taught me: you don’t really learn from your mistakes; you just make new ones with each passing Games. Mine were of post-gold standard. With a journalist’s glorious medal myopia, I’d come face to face with Abhinav Bindra at London right after the qualification of the 10m air rifle. With absolutely no consideration for his disappointment at missing out on making the finals and excited about watching my first Olympic medal, I’d ask him gleefully: “What do you think must be going through Gagan’s mind between Qualis and Finals?” The mindlessness of those words in pursuit of a singular insight for a potential medal story, hit home much later.
I went one better in 2016. Fairly confounded by why, a shooter who’d rallied sensationally in the last qualification series to make the finals, wanted to retire when he’d narrowly missed a second medal coming 4th, I blurted out in disbelief: “Are you really sure you want to retire?” He offered to sell the gun next moment.
For a country starved of medals, the wait for the podium at the Olympics, like in 2016, could turn pretty restive.
Not particularly grievous myself having accepted that 4th place can be valiant and not always bitter watching Bindra take his finish with equanimity, I had witnessed an insignificant disagreement amongst the press pack escalate into some frustrated fisticuffs outside one of the Rio venues as India went medalless for a full 12 days.
My own afflictions tended to be more self-centred: having finally decided to choose one venue over another after wracking brain for higher medal probabilities, I had to check myself more than once, from secretly hoping a medal wouldn’t “happen” at the other place. It was the stuff of nightmares – taking a punt on the geo-tag of the medal for the day. This one time after Sushil Kumar won his silver, I had been aggravated by a rival reporter dragging him away mid-quote. At Rio, I’d tumbled into the mixed zone climbing down five flights of stairs, to watch a Dipa Karmakar interaction switched completely to Bengali, as my copy seemed like it’d not stick the perfect Produnova landing it needed.
The rarity of Indian medals meant you appreciated that Sakshi Malik summoned the double leg takedown in each of her five outings at Rio, after trailing, to bull-headedly stake her claim on the bronze medal.
On a slow news day for Indian contenders, you’d give up on the no/ya debate, and start a long trudge along the Serpentine lake to get to Hyde Park triathlon venue where the Brownlee brothers were completing their legendary cycle-swim-run circuit. It could rejuvenate the mind for an exhausting week ahead.
At another time, mingling with Fijian fans, celebrating their dot nation’s epic gold medal win over Great Britain in Rugby Sevens, would replenish all depleted energy as words flowed and the story quilled itself like fairy tales.
As an Indian you always turned up at the hockey and tennis doubles, in perennial hope of a medal and wasted your emotion like a spendthrift in vain.
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