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Opinion | Sometimes, it’s just a matter of time

Athletes can deal with failure, but all they want is a chance

Virdhawal Khade in the men’s 100m butterfly heats during the 13th FINA World Championships in Rome on 31 July 2009.
Virdhawal Khade in the men’s 100m butterfly heats during the 13th FINA World Championships in Rome on 31 July 2009. (Getty Images)

The time he’s chasing is 22.01 seconds and it isn’t open for discussion. He can’t debate his way around it or make a deal with it. It doesn’t care if he’s unable to practise or the pools are closed because it’s not going to change. It’s just going to sit there, in his head, as an immovable, unforgiving challenge.

Either Virdhawal Khade is fast enough in the 50m freestyle by June 2021 or he’s not going to the Tokyo Olympics, can sleep late and eat pakoras.

There’s something brutal about Olympic qualification times, they tease and they beckon. The satisfaction lies in earning it, the thrill is in the chase, in finding fractions of seconds by investing in thousands of kilometres. Tick-tock isn’t an app, it’s an athletic soundtrack.

Twenty-two seconds and a bit is fast and don’t ever forget the bit. Because the bit—.01—is what the distance was between Khade’s fourth place and a bronze at the 2018 Asian Games. A pretty big, heartbreaking, screw-you bit. Twenty-two point zero one seconds is also a problem not because he’s incapable of that speed but because the virus has left him marooned on land.

He has been venting his frustration about closed pools—read Jonathan Selvaraj’s fine piece in ESPN India—because if he can’t swim he will get slower and the window for him to go faster again is shrinking. It’s enough to make him say: “It’s a little sad as every day passes."

It’s not only him, there’s a global tribe out there which was readying to qualify for Tokyo: a shooter who had mastered triggering, a gymnast who was polishing a dismount, and now they are going stale, defeated not by an opponent but inertia. There are progress diaries out there with no entry.

Athletes know about losing and failing and they don’t like it but they can live with it. They can swallow choking and handle screwing up and know they might trip or shoot a wrong target. It happens but they just want the chance to try. Else everything, all the early mornings and pain worn, is a waste.

There’s a story from the 1972 Munich Olympics of Eddie Hart and Rey Robinson, American sprinters who had equalled the 100m world record of 9.95 seconds in July and by August were favourites for Olympic gold.

They run the first round and are told the quarter-finals are at 7pm. In the afternoon, as they leisurely make their way from Village to Stadium, they notice runners on the television lining up for the 100m. They think it’s a replay of the heats but it’s “live". They have an outdated schedule, they are too late, they miss the race, their chance is gone.

Years later, the Los Angeles Times wrote that tired of being asked about Munich, Robinson used a pseudonym for a while. The gold was won by Valeriy Borzov in 10.14 seconds and they will never know if they could have been faster—and that’s the haunting part.

There are so many stories, some written—like the Olympic judo contender who was disqualified for going to the wrong venue for his weigh-in at Atlanta 1996—but most unknown. Athletes defeated by circumstance, injured, ill, missing their moment, and while some start again, others, like Khade, 28, run out of chances.

“It’s difficult," says Khade, who went to Beijing 2008 at 16, about this idea of not knowing. “There’s a possibility we can train hard and still not get there but at least we tried our best."

At his best, which was in the heats of the Asian Games in 2018, he timed 22.43. Getting to 22.01 means making up .42 of a second and it’s possible, except now he’s not starting from 22.43. To not swim is to stagnate and ask what he would time right now, months out of training, and he says “24.00".

There is so much work athletes put in away from the camera, accumulating kilometres, lifting weights, stockpiling strength, but when there’s no practice their form starts to reverse.

So what do you lose, I ask Khade.

“We lose most importantly a feel for water."

As he often does, he reaches for a cricket analogy, of a bowler at the nets after three months of inaction who is searching for rhythm and line. Water asks its own questions and after just one or two days off, the first session back can feel strange, he says, like you are learning to swim again. “So three months is scary."

Swimmers are capable of a sort of liquid jaadu, for they “hold the water", as if such a thing is possible. But that’s what they do, and then pull, which is how they go forward. All this requires time to perfect. “It’s like trying to walk after three months of sleeping. You almost fall over," says Khade.

The erosion of form is subtle, as quiet as a tide pulling out. Khade would do 8-12km a day and no land training can replicate this and there are things happening inside the body which the athlete can’t entirely prevent. “You lose strength, endurance, muscle memory," he explains. “What was automatic, now you have to think consciously about. When (Sachin) Tendulkar hit a cover drive he didn’t have to think, his body just moved that way when he saw the ball. But if he didn’t train for three months, he would have to think about how his body should move."

Motivation leaks, frustration gathers, uncertainty builds, for there will be a cut-off point when he just doesn’t have enough months left to find the seconds he needs. And yet he’s an athlete, all tied up in hope, bound by faith, and so when I ask again, 22.01 seconds, can he get there, you know there’s only one answer.

“I do believe it can be done."

So he waits, as must an army of athletes out there, hating this idea of being out of control of their destiny, staring at calendars and imprisoned by clocks and believing their chance has to come. It’s just a matter of time.

Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.


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