They say every year in a sportsperson’s life, especially the peak year, equals almost 4-5 years of a normal career. When you lose something like an Olympic year, it is a big loss. Any other career — a doctor, journalist, lawyer — spans about 30-40 years but the active lives of top sportspersons average 10 years. So, while around March-April last year, there was a lot of apprehension about going ahead with the Olympics, with the vaccines yet to come in and people getting used to the Covid-19 scenario, the Games should go ahead now.
If I had to put it in perspective, take shuttler Sai Praneeth, who is 28. If he had missed the Olympics, I don’t know whether he would get another chance. That he has never participated in the Olympics would remain with him for the rest of his life. There are many potential medallists in Tokyo today, from whom we are hoping to get eight to 10 medals. Imagine the lives of the people associated with them that will change because of the Olympics. A lot of things in a sportsperson’s life are dependent on these big games and if you miss out on them, you actually miss out on a lifetime.
The pandemic Olympics will be stressful and isolated: Small rooms, athletes having to stay indoors, not meeting too many outside, no going for a walk to relieve the stress. Luckily, they are not there for a couple of months. They get there just five days before their event, finish it and return. So, the first day is jet lag, the second is getting to know the place, the third is to adjust and figure things out, the fourth is spent preparing for the match. You finish the match and you have 12 to 24 hours to pack your bags and leave. In this sense, it is going to be a very business-like Olympics.
Young athletes get used to having people around, practise for 3-4 hours, going to the gym or for a run and the day is busy. Here, you have two hours in the gym, then you sit down for lunch — which normally lasts for an hour, but in Tokyo, the protocol might say just eat and move, you will have half an hour. There is so much time where you are not doing anything.
Sitting in the room, you could mess with your phone; get on Facebook or Insta. And if you see somebody praising you or somebody wanting you to win or somebody who is negative about you, it starts shaping into a monster of the mind that you have to deal with. And that needs to be avoided. We need to be very wary of this possibility and have, say, a small carrom board or chessboard or a ludo game or a book or a yoga mat — something to just take the mind off the pressures of sport.
The crowds do matter. If you are in a 100-metre race, the crowd just peps you up for the performance. A packed stadium gives you a boost of energy that an empty stadium can take back. Indians, by and large, will be okay as I don’t see Olympic sports in India having great crowds. We are used to empty stadiums.
There may be some unfortunate cases of athletes missing out due to having tested positive for Covid-19. The World No.1 skeet shooter tested positive, she got eliminated without participating. But in a larger perspective, it is still an even field because everybody is going through these issues. And everybody was at some sort of risk. And sport doesn’t have an even field at the best of times.
What is fair is that when the bell rings and the bout is started or the flag is signalled, if you win, you win. For athletes, the most important thing is to keep their head down and perform. It’s not the time to ask what’s fair or unfair. That’s needlessly complicating matters. They need to tell themselves that with whatever I have, I will do the best I can. That’s the mindset we should be looking at, and nothing more.
It’s an unpredictable world. Many people lost their qualifications because of what happened. If things go wrong, they should just prepare to come back and think of it as a bad memory and move on with life. Start again. Six months down, we have the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games — there’s no time to lose. And that’s what sport is. All of them are used to ups and downs.
The reality is that in the Covid scenario, there have been so many families who have been affected by so many big blows. People have lost lives. If you’re competing and you miss something, it’s ok. It’s not the end of the world.
Some say that these medals will come with an asterisk. But you have these opportunities in normal times also. Sometimes injuries happen and open up the field. You get a lucky withdrawal. But at the end of the day, you still have to be present and grab the opportunity with both hands. There always have been people who had a chance but messed up. Even if there is a weak field, it is still a medal to be won. That needs boldness and leadership quality. That is the idea of sport. To grab the moment.
At no time in the Games’ recent history have athletes had such extended periods to exclusively focus on training and attaining top-notch fitness.
Our medal assessments have been based on performances in tournaments from as far back as two seasons ago. But I anticipate some surprise results from China and Korea that have been training away from prying eyes and will come out bolting.
Personally, I would love to see the women’s hockey team win. It has such strong players from Mizoram, Jharkhand, Orissa and Chhattisgarh. The success of this team — if they pull off a medal — will give our country a big boost. Like a dream come true.
I would also really like to see Dutee Chand advance in the 100m. Maybe not a win, but even if she gets to the final that’ll be a big thing for me.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 24, 2021 under the title ‘Play in the moment’. The writer is a Sydney Games Olympian, All England champion and national head coach of badminton.