Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Olympic diary, London 2012

with Gagan Narang just before Vijay Kumar's silver medal 

Would we hear the Indian national anthem being played in the Olympic stadium? It was hard to keep that eager thought from our minds as we set out, knowing how lucky we were to be attending this event. Getting tickets had been our test of persistence – the rest of the world wanted them too, and the website, the only source of tickets, was overburdened and unresponsive. It took hundreds of attempts, over a period of several weeks, to get some. Ajay volunteers with the NGO Olympic Gold Quest, set up by Geet Sethi and Prakash Padukone to nurture Indian sporting talent, and he had finally managed to get some tickets for events for which the OGQ athletes had qualified. But we did not have one for the first big chance India had, with two of our star shooters, Abhinav Bindra and Gagan Narang in the lineup.
Standing at the venue, Woolwich Arsenal, with a small paper placard that pleaded, “One ticket needed. Please!” Ajay was most gratified when an elderly Indian gentleman came up and handed him one – and refused to take money for it. “Just go in there and cheer for India!” he said.
Inside was a highly-charged atmosphere, including a large crowd of cheering Indians. When Gagan made it to the finals, and won India’s first medal after some fine shooting by all eight contestants, it was a magical entry into the Olympics. What an explosion of happiness there was in the stadium, with Indians waving their flags and cheering loudly!
Indian sportspeople presently excel in boxing, wrestling, shooting, archery, and badminton. Sadly, our very talented archers did not perform well. Why does this happen? Only the very best in the world qualify for the Olympics and the fact that they are there at all means that their skill and talent is proven. It’s unfortunate that even though in the last twenty years, Indians have moved out, gained confidence and made a mark for themselves in every field, there are certain sections of society that have remained in the third world. That’s what we felt about the archery debacle – a lack of the right sort of nurture, leading to a lack of confidence at the final stage. While we felt sad about this, it was hard not to feel happy at being inside the very special arena where the competition took place, the holiest ground of cricket – Lords!
London is a beautiful city, with its many monuments and sights. For the Olympics, the central part of the city was decorated with flags and mascots. The venues were at suburbs in different corners of the city, and each route was also festive, with signposts and impressive teams of volunteers dressed in the pink chosen as the colour for this Olympics. Since most of the Olympic routes passed through the centre of the city, managing peak hour traffic must have been a major challenge and it was met very well. The Olympic stadium itself was the farthest out of the city, with another two venues on the way, and right at the end an enormous new shopping complex at Westfield. Coming out of the tube station, the crowd was so thick that the ticket barriers were kept raised. One day we heard a volunteer calling out loudly over the public address system, in a tone traditionally reserved for the wholesale vegetable market, “No need to take out your tickets, ladies and gentlemen! And in case you don’t have a ticket, that’s just fine, we don’t mind at all!” We laughed, but couldn’t help wondering what the scene would be like after a few weeks, and whether these huge stores could possibly get the kind of custom they needed to sustain themselves just from the local population.
It wasn’t just the people in England who were out making merry – even the sun was smiling and the clouds and frosty wind stayed away while the games were on. So persuasive was this weather that the British sportspeople couldn’t help but win one gold medal after another and the celebrations across the country rose to a higher level. This run of British gold medals unfortunately cost India one and our star hope, Mary Kom did not make it.
By now everyone knows Mary’s story, her background of poverty; her immense talent and the number of world championships she has won – including two after her twin boys were born; her supportive husband; her sweet, uncomplicated nature and her love for singing! It was so like Mary that, after weeping for an hour, the first thing she did was apologize to the country.
That’s when we realized that, though the Olympics is really about physical excellence, endurance, and commitment – it’s high emotion that stands out most of all. One day we walked from one venue to another on one of the long walkways that had been prepared for the games and as we passed a large screen, the people sitting in front of it burst into loud cheers. Andy Murray had won the tennis gold! And there was Andy on the screen, and what was he doing but weeping!  So many of the British gold medalists wept when they won their medals that the tabloid press decided to give Britain a gold medal for being a nation of the biggest ‘blubbers’. We heard a TV anchor ask Nicole Adams, the woman boxer who beat Mary Kom, “I noticed you were smiling when you won your medal. Most of the others cried when they got theirs. How come you didn’t cry?” Poor Nicole looked guilty and apologized for not weeping at the happiest moment of her life.
People do crazy, inexplicable things. At the Royal Barracks one day, Ajay was thrilled to watch Joydeep Karmarkar reach the finals of the 50m prone. Sadly, he missed the bronze by a whisker. A short while later he bumped into the president of the West Bengal Rifle Association who had decided that he could not possibly watch any more (even though another shooter, Vijay Kumar, was in the finals) since he was so overjoyed at Joydeep’s terrific performance. He proclaimed that if he had his way he would announce a day’s holiday in West Bengal the next day!
One of our low moments was watching the feisty Saina Nehwal get walloped by a Chinese girl. It hurt! Even the memory of the volunteers who saw us waving our flags as we marched up the steps to Wembley Stadium and called out: “Go get them! Beat the Chinese! You can do it!” wasn’t enough to make us feel better. Later Ajay met Gopichand, Saina’s coach, a very soft spoken and polite person. He explained the strategy of the Chinese team, which had three players in the semi-finals. So in the first semi-finals it was China against China, and their stronger player, Wang, had purposely lost so that it would be she who played Saina and give them a better chance at getting all three medals. As it happened, during the match Wang developed a hamstring catch and had to forfeit, giving India our second bronze medal.
Another unforgettable moment was watching the quiet, unassuming Vijay Kumar work his way steadfastly through his event and come out nearly at the top. Every Indian inside the arena, including those in the media section, was jumping up and down and screaming with delight!
We were certainly disappointed that we never heard the Indian national anthem at the Olympics. At the same time, the thrill of seeing our beautiful flag raised a number of times made us come home quite determined that we would be there in Brazil too!
first appeared in Ability magazine OND 2012