Opinion | Beyond podium finishes and prime patriotism
Multi-sports Games, like the Asian Games or the Olympicsare superior to anything else. It's like wandering through a contemporary museum of sport
It’s the best ticket in sport even if nothing is being played there. It’s a seat you’ll never be able to afford, though, in truth, you have to stand. It’s a place where you’re 2ft away from athletes, sometimes just seconds after they’ve finished an event.
It’s the mixed zone and it can be raw.
The mixed zone is intimate, immediate, intense and like nothing else in sport. You won’t find it at Wimbledon and probably not at the Camp Nou. Yet it’s there at the Asian Games, and at the Olympics. It’s where journalists wait behind a barrier with microphones for an interrogation.
Seconds after a race, sometimes minutes, everyone has to walk through the mixed zone. Sun Yang, Virdhawal Khade and the last-placed guy, their bodies still sucking in oxygen. They don’t have to stop but they have to walk it.
At the press conference, first, second, third show up but this is where you get to meet the world beyond the champions. The almost-third guy. The 19th-placed runner in the women’s 1,500m who set a personal best. The judoka whose mother did three jobs to get him there. This is the alleyway of stories. The lane of tales.
The archer in Jakarta has just finished and I can see her pain but I need her reaction. I want to know her story and most times they want to tell it to you. She was shooting well and abruptly her 10s were interrupted by a 5. It’s like a bruise on brilliance and her day is over.
She finishes, puts down her bow, cries in the toilet, washes her face. Then she speaks at length at the mixed zone. Ask anything. No problem. This is why I snigger at cricketers who duck interviews.
Multi-sports Games, for me, are superior to anything else. And yet over the years I keep meeting fans who are travelling to Lord’s, Sydney, Cape Town but I don’t think I’ve ever met one who told me he was going to Guangzhou for the Asian Games, or Incheon, or Jakarta.
It’s like wandering through a contemporary museum of sport. Water polo players rise, divers fall, shooters still, gymnasts fly. This is a two-week university. Many swimmers wear two caps and some water polo players two costumes (not that it protects against the tugging of things). There is no such thing as a bulls-eye in shooting. We made it up. Abhinav Bindra told me this so take it up with him. And always find someone who knows the scoring system in gymnastics.
Ignorance is not altogether bad for it leaves you open to awe. A swimmer, this time, tells me she doesn’t take a single breath as she slashes through the water in the 50m freestyle. A diver, long ago, explained that they carry a small cloth, or shammy, to wipe themselves after dives so that their arms don’t slip from tightly-held knees while rotating fast enough to turn Spiderman giddy.
If you sit behind an archer, you can’t see the arrow once it leaves on its journey. Or is it my eyes? Later I ask an archer to explain his compound bow to me, a complex instrument of limbs and pulleys, and he gladly does. The less famous the athlete, often the nicer they are. It’s an old rule. Though famously nice Roger Federer is an old exception to most rules.
You sometimes wait a while for buses to the next stadium but it’s an important pause for it gives you time to reorient yourself. You’re coming from diving where they slide bodies into water and going to rugby where they slip between bodies.
Every sport reimagines balance for itself and the idea of movement. Every athlete finds kinship. Sepak takraw folk and gymnasts could discuss landings. Climbers and high jumpers could discuss gravity. Sailors and shooters could talk about wind, both sending up contrary prayers when they compete.
You see connections or imagine them. Is the badminton lunge a second-cousin of fencing? Is it the suffocation of the mask which makes fencing people yell? Often you see a sport without understanding anything beyond the obvious. Snehal Pradhan, the astute writer, asked me at the badminton, what do you look at, and I was stumped. Feet, I think I said. But there are layers to a game, mostly uncovered by us. I remember reading in The New Yorker about Alberto Salazar, the runner turned coach, criticizing “the cant" of a runner’s pelvis. It makes you grin at how little you know.
Neither Wimbledon nor a cricket Test has as much released energy as a Games. So many body types, so many stopwatches, so many flags, teams, soloists, so many winners, so many last places. Athletes divided by nothing and reaching across lanes for a wet handshake.
Only thing I try not to look at is medal tables. Dull nationalistic arithmetic. Prime patriotism. Countries like to wear medals but people win them, chasing them on lonely journeys in a life where they’re devoted to tedious repetition. We like to cover them in heroism but really what they are is stubborn.
Survivors. Endurers. Sufferers. Dreamers. (Cheaters, too. Egoists. Excuse-makers.)
It’s not always pretty inside a Games and we forget that sport can be dark, diminishing, depressing. A place where athletes think they’re never good enough. We look for the rise of greatness but don’t always recognize the free-fall of self-esteem. A swimmer spoke to me in Jakarta about insecurity, nerves, depression and the things we like to sweep under podiums. She cried, she battled, she was honest, she won silver.
More than a field is beaten at a Games.
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.