The five-ringed circus

Posted on August 10, 2016


Do you find it odd that every four years, we sit in front of the television and watch someone be declared the world’s best at… javelin-throwing? I can understand the allure of the sport before, say, the invention of guns. Had television existed a millennium ago, it’s not hard to imagine Native American tribes setting up barbecues outside their wigwams or ordering in bison-toppinged pizza, and raising a foamy mug of fermented corn to the athlete whose spear travelled the farthest. Such a talent was useful then. You couldn’t get those bison toppings if you didn’t know how to spear a bison. Javelin-throwing was more than just a sport. It was a job interview. But now? The current men’s record stands at 323 feet. There’s no city in the world you could hurl a javelin that far. You’d poke a neighbour in the eye and end up with a lawsuit.

What I find most fascinating about the Olympics is that they celebrate the ability of man and woman to demonstrate talents that are no longer relevant. In the work-obsessed present day, “Faster… Higher… Stronger” simply denotes the ability to reach the office on time despite hitting the snooze button twice, or the ability to climb the corporate ladder and snag that promotion (and the corner cabin). Even in the realm of sport, “I can swim faster than you” somehow sounds more purposeful than “I can run up to a mark and set down this pole and vault over.” The prospect of being chased by shark is more plausible than that of needing to leap over buildings. Unless you’re James Bond. Or a burglar being chased by cops. And you have the presence of mind to always carry a pole.

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I hope I’m not sounding (entirely) facetious. And I’m not being dismissive. I’m just amazed that, every four years, we gather to celebrate these feats that must have meant so much more in earlier millennia. And we forget about them soon after. We go back to applauding Kohli and wondering if Rafa will make it at least to the quarter-finals. I feel a bit guilty about this, because everyone has an off day, and a tennis player who does badly in a tournament gets many more opportunities that same year to be better. But if you have an off day at the Olympics, as Abhinav Bindra did, you can do nothing about it for the next four years. Bindra, of course, has opted to retire, but there are others who’ll be four years older, whose bodies will be four years older, who’d have spent countless hours training, away from the spotlight, and who’ll get just that one shot. No one will say, “Man, that was some amazing dedication you displayed for four years, sweating it out, watching what you eat, focusing relentlessly on getting a medal for a country that barely acknowledges, let alone reward, your sport.” They’ll just say, “Tcha, missed by a millimetre.”

With some events, it’s not so much about relevance as beauty – and nowhere is this more evident than in the synchronised diving competition. It’s hard enough trying to land arms first. But to mock gravity thus, with a partner mirroring your moves in mid-air – that’s not sport, that’s magic. Or take Dipa Karmakar, who has brought to our attention the Produnova vault, which, apparently, isn’t a place of safekeeping for valuables from Tsarist Russia. For the longest time, Russians and Eastern Europeans were the only ones who could do those marvellous things with their bodies. That a young girl from Tripura is pulling this off is mind-boggling – not because she’s from Tripura, but because she’s from India, where bodily contortions of this kind are usually reserved for item numbers on screen. In these events, the question we ask isn’t “How far?” or “How high?” but simply “How?” It’s the same question we ask as we ponder the lack of wardrobe malfunctions during beach volleyball.

Then we have weight lifting, consisting of four precise moves. Bend. Grunt. Hoist. Drop. Again, a talent from a more gladiatorial era, though I’m fairly sure Rahul Gandhi wishes he could exercise these moves on his Twitter trolls. That’s what I’m saying, that we could find new uses for these old feats of strength and endurance. We could make them relevant again. Except, probably, golf. In a fortnight during which the world’s fittest and finest are running, swimming, diving, shooting arrows and rifles, and throwing heavy spherical objects (the IOC calls it “shot put,” though the BCCI would classify it as “chucking”), it does seem hard to care about people sauntering about on grass in a sport that, on television, is about as action-packed as fishing. But I suppose even that is better than sitting at home, shooting snarky barbs at the Olympics. I propose we label it a sport and give it a name: Snarchery.

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