By Roopa Pai
The curtains have rung down on yet another edition of the Olympics, that grand four-yearly international sporting spectacle that celebrates the feats that the human body, unaided by anything motorized or electronic, can achieve. As always, Rio has been a glittering display, across races and peoples, of primal attributes like speed, strength, skill, and endurance.
But inevitably, the Olympics have also been an occasion for carping, quibbling, and sniping about victories, medal tallies, and a range of other issues. For the fan then, there is not only a vicarious exhaustion, a reluctance to return to the mediocre humdrum of everyday life, but also takeaways to reflect on, now that the dust is settling:
1. Less than a fifth of the athletes at the Olympics win themselves a medal. Two of ours were among them. 11,544 athletes were at Rio this year, and 2,102 medals were given out in all. That means at least 9,442 athletes went home without one. Factor in multiple medal winners like Michael Phelps (6), Simone Biles (5), and Usain Bolt (3), and that number increases. That does not make those 9.4k-odd athletes 'losers'. Just the fact that they made the Olympic cut in their sport marks them for life as 'superhumans', part of the minuscule percentage of the 7 billion people on earth who earned their place there.
2. From a medal table point of view (unfortunately, the only one that seems to matter), India did better than 68% of the participating countries. Our two medal-winners put us at No 67 on the table of 207 participating countries. That is not something to sniff at. And to finish off that “1.2 billion people and only 2 medals” whine once and for all, here are two facts to think about: 1. Britain's population is about 0.05 % that of China's, but it ended up higher on the medals table. 2. The USA's population is about 25% of China's, but the US won almost double the medals that China did. Clearly, the size of the talent pool is not necessarily a determinant of success at competitive sport.
3. The medal table is skewed in many ways. Don't entirely discount the conspiracy theories. A total of 102 individual and team medals were won in swimming events and a total of 90 in gymnastics, adding up to 10% of all the medals up for grabs. Both are sports in which the US dominates. Sure, Track and Field has 141 medals on offer, but Track and Field covers a gamut of different events apart from running – high jump, long jump, hammer throw, javelin throw, pole vault, triple jump – and unlike in swimming or gymnastics, track and field athletes can only be specialists in one of those events, not more. That means it is extraordinarily difficult for one country to dominate track and field. So take that medal table with a pinch of salt.
4. Every shape of body is a winner, because it serves one particular purpose so spectacularly. And nowhere does that old, tired, almost-cliche come to life as vividly and definitively as it does in the Olympics.
There’s the wiry all-muscle of the long-distance runner's body alongside the squat, power-packed 'buffness' of the 100m sprinter's. There’s the petite self-contained Simone Biles body (height 4ft 9in, weight 47 kg), against the 95kg heft of the Anita Wlodarczyk body (the Pole set a world record in the hammer throw at Rio) or the 6ft 9in, 120-kg massiveness of DeAndre Jordan of the gold-medal winning American basketball team. Each is a brilliant work of effective engineering.
5. The fact that there are women at the Olympics at all is something to celebrate. The ancient Olympics were of course men-only, but even the modern Olympics began by keeping women out. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, 'Father of the Modern Olympics', led the charge, stating famously that 'an Olympiad with females would be impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and improper'.
Women began to be allowed in, grudgingly, in 1900, but it was only in London 2012 that the glass ceiling was finally shattered – for the first time, women were not barred from any sport, and every competing nation sent at least one female competitor. And thank god for that – an Olympics without Sindhu, Sakshi, Dipa, Lalita, Aditi, Vinesh, Deepika Kumari and Bombayla Devi, among others, would have been largely uninteresting and unaesthetic, apart from being very, very improper indeed.
6. There are a lot of weird events in Olympic track and field, for purely historical reasons. What purpose does it serve for grown men and women to compete at throwing random objects like javelins, iron balls, discuses, and hammers that don't look anything like hammers, further and further? Why not have athletes throw concrete blocks, cement bags, and kitchen sinks instead into a pre-marked area, and have Habitat for Humanity then construct homes for the poor in the host city while the Games are still on?
7. Competitive sport is a wonderful thing. Or is it? Of course it is grand to see the citius-altius-fortius on display, but the thing with anything competitive is that it divides the world into 'winners' and 'losers'. Then there is all the violent terminology associated with competition – a winner demolishes, steamrolls, thrashes, beats, or slaughters a 'loser' who crashes out, flops, surrenders, or fails.
There is a gladiatorial bloodlust implicit in the act of rooting for your champion, for her win always comes at the expense of someone else's loss. But competition is part of the very DNA of human survival – if we didn't have sport as an outlet for our cut-throat, combative instincts, more of us would probably be actually tearing each other apart or feeding each other to the lions. Sobering thought, that. Yoga may be the answer.
8. Sport is a proxy for life itself, and the Olympics are a compact – and stunning – panoply of it. Some of the best life-lessons come from watching the Olympics:
a) No winner is an island, or a fluke – there is a whole village that got him or her to the podium. The difference between the gold medal winner and others, therefore, is hard work, sacrifice and dedication (and dumb luck, and a smidge of 'biological advantage', and karma – basically, no one quite knows).
b) No loser is a failure (except in his or her own wretched mind).
c) No winner is greater than a humble one, no loser more admired than a gracious one.
d) Everyone is a winner until that one particular day, that one particular match, when he or she isn't.
In short, sport, like life, is completely unpredictable, which is what makes playing and watching the game so inspiring, so compelling, so heart-breaking, and so ridiculously interesting.
Roopa Pai is one of India's best-known children's writers. She has authored over 20 books, including the 2015 bestseller "The Gita For Children". She is also a huge fan of sportspersons, and celebrated each day of the Rio Olympics by writing and sharing inspirational stories of Indian Olympians on her Facebook page.