The Olympic Boo-Hoo

A couple of days ago, an anguished sports writer said what we all know – India is a one-sport nation. He moaned that we treat all our Olympian heroes who toil away unknown for nearly four years with such callousness, it undermines our ability as a nation to win more Olympic Golds. Which is true. With a population of 1.2 billion people, we won all of six at London 2012 – and that is our biggest tally so far. At this rate, we should be able to hit double figures within the next decade or two!

The races at the Olympics start with the race to host it. World leaders throw their collective hat into the ring and bring all the force at their disposal to woo the Olympic Committee. The economics are simple. The city that wins gets featured across the world for two solid weeks and a surge in economic, tourist and infrastructure building activity is assured. Not to mention that HD TV cameras will zoom into every nook and cranny and commentators wax eloquent about the facilities, the history and of course, the actual events.

How often do we watch these events outside of the Olympics? One of the reasons these diverse sports are put together every four years is that some of them – equestrian or fencing or canoeing, will never command the same prime-time audience on their own, except in very limited pockets. The oxygen of the games is TV. Synchronized swimming is a thing of beauty. But would you tune in every day to watch the same routines? The way you settle down to a game of football?

Even if the TV cameras were to follow our wrestlers, our archers and our chess players we would quickly tire of one piece swimsuit-clad sweaty hulks hovering around each other trying to lock into a firm grip. The slow motion coverage of the arrows hitting the bulls-eye at London 2012 was amazing. But again, would we want to watch this every day of the year? And even if we were to see a chess game in fast forward, the nuances would be lost. You can’t televise the act of thinking and strategy.

The athletes who choose what they do have no illusions about their abilities or their prospects. They know that they will never enjoy the warm embrace of national pride for years like the cricketers do. They toil in anonymity because they choose to. Mary Kom’s story, just like that of Sushil Kumar, Saina Nehwal and Yogeshwar Dutt is inspiring. They did what was necessary and stayed the course. Today, they can cash in on endorsements. Unlike the athletes of even a couple of decades ago, who faded back into anonymity

The journey to an Olympic medal is never cheap, in terms of actual money spent or the sacrifices made by the family. There is no guarantee that the efforts will pay off after years of toil. So for many Indian families, it is never an easy decision to support a child’s dream. Abhinav Bindra’s father had the means to build a shooting range for him. But Mary Kom had to lie to her father to engage in the sport she truly loved. Facilities can be built. But passion and commitment cannot be created by the state.


A Fast Life

We’re addicted to speed. We want cars that go faster with every new model launched. Automatic guns that discharge hundreds of bullets every second. There are drugs nicknamed ‘Speed’ because they provide an instant high – never mind the crash landing and the burn later. There’s even a new invention that allows you to inhale alcohol to get a high much faster than imbibing a few drinks over hours.

We do this in spite of knowing what the consequences are. At 90 miles per hour, we are effectively seeing only through one eye, since both cannot focus quickly enough at a single point. When several hundred rounds are fired in a second, the ability to cause immense damage goes through the roof. In a war, there may be justification for such a weapon. When one soldier is surrounded by the enemy and needs to have a chance of survival. But in peace time, in a civilian environment, it can only cause unimaginable misery to hundreds of families who lose their loved ones in a senseless instant. As we have been seeing in the news headlines month after month.

Like moths attracted to a burning flame, we are rushing forward into a future that seems bright but is actually a cauldron. We have become so busy that we don’t nurture relationships or find the time to do the things that satisfy us the most. Do we really need that shiny new car that goes from 0-60 in 3.5 seconds? What is missed out is where you can hit that speed. On a remote highway at 4 o clock in the morning – on weekdays, not weekends. Have you noticed that most car commercials are never set in metros? They are conveniently staged far away from civilisation – and traffic. And we buy into that projected fantasy with enthusiastic fervour.

Today’s newspaper headline is indicative of the times – Marital Woes Flood CM Cell. The Chief Minister’s office in Tamil Nadu gets close to 2000 letters, emails and couriers every day. And from couples who have no idea what it means to build a marriage together. Financial independence is reducing their dependence on each other. And any argument can become a flashpoint for a permanent rupture. And to what end – each one trying to justify the origin and the ‘rightness’ of their positions.

There’s a lot to be enjoyed with slowness. Like a quiet dinner broken only by the sounds of chirping crickets. When we curl up with a book – we are actually reading at an average of 200-250 words per minute. Even walking at a moderate intensity, we stride 100 steps a minute. So life in the slow lane is not exactly as sleep-inducing as it is made out to be. It’s just that in comparison to zipping along in a car or playing a shoot-em-up game, they are slower.

Try this the next time you feel stressed and totally drained – allow only limited inputs into your senses. Close your eyes, since visual processing is what takes up the maximum load on your brain. Spend 5 minutes just listening to your breathing in a quiet room. Keep the volume on your radio, or your tablet low, so that it just registers on your ears – and does not pummel your brains. You’ll be surprised at how much more relaxed and ‘alive’ you feel. Without having to pay anyone for the privilege!


Happily Ever After

Its the fairy tale ending – the bookend to the phrase ‘Once Upon a Time…’ that signifies the starting of a story. The beginning that promises interesting times ahead. One used to yearn to know what happened after ‘Happily Ever After’. Did all the complications in a character’s life end? Or were they simply not significant enough to write about?

As a child, accepting Happily Ever After was easy. It meant that the characters went off to some eternal state of bliss on earth. You closed the book and moved on to other things. But it soon dawned that there was no such thing as a Happy Ending. You cannot have a book or a movie that only portrays one big happy family. After some time, the syrup begins to overwhelm. Conflict is the fount of engagement, not happiness. Bliss leads to stupor – fat lazy days that roll into one another with no discernible seam. As long as the next move is uncertain, the audience watches with bated breath. The moment there is a resolution, the interest wanes – like the drink goes flat when the fizz is released from a soft drink bottle.

We understand happiness mainly as memory. As adults, we look back to childhood as a ‘happy’ time when we had no worries or responsibilities. But that’s not true. Exams were terrifying. Remember waking up the middle of the night thinking that you knew ‘nothing’ about the question paper the next day? Or the wait for results that seemed to be never-ending? And yet, when you ask anyone who had a ‘normal’ childhood ( whatever that means) school, friends and growing up, they remember it as a happy time. Or as boring – when time moved with all the pace of a shadow lengthening on a school wall. 40 minute school periods seemed to stretch to infinity. It’s only by gritting teeth and grinding through the boredom that one got through.

So, one learned to prize even small breaks in the routine. Even a walk to the beach to simply watch the waves rolling in and the ceaseless lapping of the surf had its own charm. The sand clung to the feet, distributed itself into the depths of clothes and even a few days later, a few grains of sand could be retrieved from the pocket. Riding in a car or a train was a treat and the window seat was prized and worth fighting over. Eating out was frowned upon with tales of the dirty kitchens and ‘God-only-knows- who-was-the-cook’ kind of remarks.

So what does Happily Ever After look like today? The father at his computer. The mother watching a serial. The kids zapping demons or aliens to kingdom come. Each member of the family in their own personal bubble with only smatterings of conversation. Nobody eats at the table anymore. We’re used to being fed on a constant diet of drama and conflict that plays 24 hours on one of our many screens. We hate it when it has to be interrupted by guests seeking conversation. Real experience is substituted by the virtual – and we are blurring the difference with ‘pretend’ conversations all going on at the same time. The illusion is that we are doing and achieving more – even as we retreat into shells that are only shadows of our so-called real selves.