To not have and to heal…

The purpose of a tragedy as Aristotle had famously remarked, is to evoke a wonder born of pity and fear, the result of which is cathartic. I have personally found that tragedy often throws life in sharp relief, helping us discover compassion and empathy that often gets lost in our habits and patterns that we take for granted. Today’s tragic incident at Medellin where a plane carrying players, staff, coaches, journalists and guests of the Brazilian football team Chapecoense crashed resulting in the deaths of 75 of the 81 on board is another such reminder. There is tragedy all around the world on a daily basis, but when it strikes, whether directly or obliquely, at sport – something that almost universally represents an  escape from life’s worst and sometimes a coping mechanism for those struck by tragedy – it becomes extremely hard to come to terms with.

The scars events such as Capecoense’s leave can be deep and do not heal easily. Because sometimes we cope with our own scars and personal tragedy through sport, but where do we go when sport itself becomes tragic? That was the question that faced Matt Busby in 1958, after 8 of his ‘Busby Babes’, talented young footballers from the sensational Manchester United team of the early 1950s perished in a plane crash in Munich. That was the question that faced the world in Munich again when terrorists struck at the 1972 Olympics. That was the deep turmoil that the town of Marhsall faced when the Thundering Herd of Marhsall University, its football team, a matter of huge pride for the town, was all but wiped out in a fateful plane crash in 1970.

chapecoense

Any tragedy brings with it the painful prospect of having to get over it and rebuild, and that usually turns out to be the hardest part. The 2006 film We Are Marshall starring Mathew McConaughey captured that aspect rather well, showing how, as everyone deals with those typical stages of grief, ultimately lets the sport, the team and what the whole community experience of sport stands for do the healing. It sounds easy when you see a 2 hour movie, but in reality it is extremely difficult. But it also often brings to the fore the humanity we think we are missing. In the light of the Munich air disaster, Real Madrid dedicated their European Cup win of 1958 to the Busby Babes, and even played friendlies with the team to help raise funds. Liverpool, who were and still remain United’s fiercest rivals, set all that aside and offered five first team players as they rebuilt the team with legendary manager Bill Shankly stating that Liverpool would foot their wage bill. In case of the Brazilian team, who had shown remarkable progress in getting to the top tier of Brazilian football in less than a decade, steadily promoting themselves up from the fourth division, the French giants PSG have already offered financial aid to the tune of 40 million dollars. The material help doesn’t make the tragedy go away, but it does open the door to begin the process of recovery and healing.

Medellin, the Colombian city where the tragedy occurred on 29th November 2016, knows a thing or two about healing. Chapecoense were here to play Atletico Nacional, a team that had among its ranks Andres Escobar, a talented defender who was part of a golden generation of players who helped Colombia storm into the 1994 World Cup, but with complications created by the narco links to football in Colombia at that time with the long shadow of the other Escobar, Pablo, looming large, the campaign ended in disaster with a first round exit. Andres Escobar paid with his life for an own goal that he unfortunately scored in the final league game against the hosts USA. Colombian football faced a death spiral and was slipping off the world map until a new generation unveiled themselves in Brazil in 2014. That the tragedy had to happen in Medellin makes it infinitely more painful to come to terms with, but at the same time it is also perhaps a reminder that, as a friend of mine put it, ‘football has been here before, and football will rise. For these players. Forever Champions.’

Sport, as it always has, will finally help us heal. But until then, Forza Cahapecoense, you are in our thoughts and prayers, because if sport and the emotions it triggers are not universal, it is nothing.

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India’s Rio tryst – Episode IV: Revelation

sindhu reception

Pride from sporting success is a public good, but how should we produce more of it

Is sport a public good? This debate has gathered steam, or at least should gather steam in the aftermath of the Olympic Games where India’s performance [or lack thereof] has generated a lot of soul searching. In the first three parts [links to Part I, Part II and Part III] of this series I looked at why success at the Games is a tough proposition and how we tend to overreact to both success and failure because of a complex dynamic between inflated expectations and the fact that the Games are a quadrennial affair.

In this last part, I will put forward some thoughts on what potential approaches can be taken to generate more success at sport, and before that address an even more fundamental question – do we even want sporting success?

In a superb and introspecting piece that doesn’t mince words, Abhinav Bindra, gold medallist at Beijing in 2008 and the flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony at Rio, laid bare the reasons why we are ‘a two medal nation’. But how he began was most interesting. He writes –

[L]et’s address the basic questions: Do we want to be known as one of the leaders of the sporting world that wins 20, 30, 40 medals every Olympics? Or are we happy being a two-, three-, or five-medal nation? The confusion is a very understandable one. There are so many problems in India, and so many priorities to focus on-poverty, healthcare, water, power, unemployment, social inequality-that sport ends up taking a back seat. If we are happy with keeping sport on the backburner, on not treating it as a priority item in our larger national agenda, fair enough, and so be it. If we decide, as a nation, that we cannot invest in sport and we cannot afford to join the race for medals, let us re-engineer our hopes and set realistic targets. Let us be fine with winning a few medals, if at all, at the Olympics, and be content.

His line of thought posits sports as a ‘good’ that a country or an economy needs to invest in to produce. Bear with me on this tiny economics digression. Classical economic theory usually says that nations or economies should focus on producing what they are best at [comparative advantage theory] and trading for the stuff they cant produce or do not have a comparative advantage in. Unfortunately, if by sport as a good we mean our national performance on international stages such as the Olympics, there is no scope for trade. We can’t trade Michael Phelps’ gold medal for two of ours in hockey in 1948 and 1980. That means we have to produce sporting excellence ourselves. An extreme case of import substitution, if you will. Now to produce more or better goods, an economy can try one of two methods. As the outgoing RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan explained so elegantly in a speech at the IIT Delhi Convocation last year

‘Robert Solow, won the Nobel Prize in Economics for work that showed that the bulk of economic growth did not come from putting more factors of production such as labour and capital to work. Instead, it came from putting those factors of production together more cleverly, that is, from what he called total factor productivity growth. Put differently, new ideas, new methods of production, better logistics – these are what lead to sustained economic growth.’

So, in a sporting sense, we have put Solow’s ideas into action. In the history of economics, countries have acquired economic might by broadly employing one of two ways of putting factors of production together – through a free market [capitalist] system or through command and control of central planning [socialism]. There is no definitive evidence even today of a foolproof way to grow an economy and produce better goods and services, though based on popularity, capitalism is in a comfortable lead at the moment; an advantage it has had for some time. To slip in some racing terminology, at this point it may have ‘lapped’ socialism.

Unsurprisingly, countries’ approach to investing money and knowhow in creating sporting success often mirrors how they do the same for the economy at large. China, where the state control of the economy is still strong, has a centralized system where the government funds rigorous training programs that identify and train young talent [resources, in econ speak] and the objective is to produce champions who will bring the country glory in terms of success at an international level. At the other extreme, we have the United States, a traditionally free economy that takes its lassiez faire approach to its Olympic sports as well. The government directly funds none of the sports and the United States Olympic Committee raised funds from the public at large and sponsors and distributes them among various disciplines. Like in a capitalist system, ventures that are likely to be successful attract capital. Thus, the money usually goes to sports where likelihood of success is higher or a sport that has a proven track record of success. South Korea, which was a dictator led economy in the 1970s and 80s had massive government push in certain disciplines back then [facilities, funds for training, pressure on athletes to win] and as it transitioned into a more free market economy, its approach to sport was more of the result oriented mix of public and private expenditure.

And then we have Great Britain, who dominated headlines after Rio because of their stellar performance that pushed China into third place on the medal tally. Britain has more of a mixed approach, where money has been consistently raised through a public lottery and poured into supporting sports that had more likelihood of success. It is similar to the American system with the unique Brit twist that the money is quasi government money. Economic success and might is something countries use to stand out internationally, and sporting success has been a stand in for national pride for a long time too. Sport, whether stated explicitly or not, has been treated as a public good – one that is non-excludable [you can cheer for a Sindhu whether you funded her training or not, or whether you know how to play badminton or not] and nonrivalrous [your cheering for Sindhu does not diminish your ability to cheer for a Sakshi Malik or an MS Dhoni]. In their paper ‘The value of public goods generated by a major league sports team’, published in the Journal of Sports Economics in 2000, Bruce Johnson, Peter Groothuis and John Whitehead argue that sports generates a certain positive externality. A positive externality is a benefit for which you don’t necessarily pay. As the authors write

‘People talk about their team, cheer for its success and celebrate its victories and may do so without buying tickets or making any payment to the team. Perhaps the most spectacular manifestations of such public goods are the raucous street parties…by hundreds of thousands of fans in cities whose teams win league championships.’

Think about how an entire country came together for cheering Dipa Karmakar [a virtual unknown in the public eye till the Games] during her gymnastics final or PV Sindhu during the badminton final or the huge welcomes they received at the airport when they got back.

So, this brings us back to the original question. Do we want more of such moments? Because if we do, then we will need to invest resources – whether public or private in the goods. Since the output is likely to be public goods in nature, the profit motive and the market mechanism might not always solve the problem [the ‘putting together of factors of production more cleverly’ as Dr. Rajan put it].

Naturally, the alternative left is public money and government intervention. But if the sordid history of socialism has taught us anything, it is that intervention seldom leads to sustainable outcomes. Our sporting administration is currently stuck in that mode where the government largely gets to decide resource allocation for athletes and if at all it is thinking of breeding success, it is generally along the lines of ‘a faster horse’ philosophy. What is emerging, as we search for potential solutions, is a mixed form of economy among sports, where public and private funds coexist. Our economy has had a similar ride over the last six decades where we moved from a government controlled system to a more mixed one resulting in economic growth – more and better goods and services that have generally lifted standards of living.

Could our Olympic sports follow a similar trajectory? After decades of apathy and lost potential, could a mixed approach produce more excellence and more of the public goods of sporting success to enjoy? Probably not yet. And that is because we don’t have yet any kind of comparative advantage in these sports, generally speaking. Which means, they might need the support of public money a while longer, like a weak industry being subsidized to survive international competition. Remember, besides everything else, there are opportunity costs for those who get involved in these sports and are training to be the best in the world. The hours of practice come at the cost of education, lost income, and maybe even lost contribution in other areas of the economy [what if that archer who gave up studying medicine were to go on and have contributed to the development for a cure to cancer?]. After their sporting career is over, most of these athletes might find it difficult to land productive work and sources of income. This is not a problem exclusive to an economy like ours but happens in advanced economies too. However, opportunity wise, we still have a long way to go in a country where underemployment of resources is a chronic problem. There is no silver bullet to solve this dilemma.

An AP article explained South Korea’s success at the Rio Games and previous ones thus

[In the 80s] authoritarian government pumped money into programs for athletes who had better chances of winning medals, often in these lesser known sports, rather than building up an overall sports infrastructure for the general public. Those selected athletes trained together at government-run facilities and were awarded benefits such as good pensions and, for the men, exemptions from mandatory military service if they performed well in international competitions like the Olympics.

As athletes in those sports succeeded internationally, the sports got more public attention. More popularity meant more steady civilian and business sponsorships. This meant more money, better training facilities and more young athletes taking up and sticking with the sports.

That system is still largely in place. Hence the success.

That is, there is a virtuous cycle of investment that has been generated because there was government subsidy in the first place. Maybe the Prime Minister’s idea of a task force for the next three Games, and the much criticized but well intentioned TOPS program are what India needs to belt out a better quality of public good in sports.

With a young nation and plentiful ambition, the apocalyptic scenarios are probably a little overplayed. But we better start thinking of the ‘clever’ ways to combine resources fast. And National Sports Day is probably as good a day as any to begin thinking about it.

 

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India’s Rio tryst – Episode III: Numbers

This is the third part of a four part series I am writing on India at Rio. Part I is here and Part II is here

Now that the dust has settled on the Olympics and the heartbreak that they brought for Indian athletes and sports fans alike, perhaps it is time to take our Piers Morgan bashing glasses off and look at why every Games we are put through the wringer of the same optimism –> hope –> despair –> disappointment cycle. There was a lot of discussion during the Games about how Indian athletes missed out on medals or qualification for medal rounds because of cruelly tiny margins. Dipa Karmakar, the gymnast was just 0.150 points out of a medal place in the Vault apparatus final. Mairaj Khan the skeet shooter missed out on the semifinal in a shootout. Jitu Rai and Gagan Narang had similar fates in their shooting events, and so did the women archers, losing a real close battle to Russia in the team competition quarter finals. But perhaps the most heartbreaking of all was Abhinav Bindra in the 10m Air Rifle where he finished fourth by pretty much a literal whisker. He was a genuine medal hope [after all, he was the gold medallist in Beijing] and it was news that was hard to take for him and his fans alike.

But while many explanations will be bandied about, we have to wrap our heads around one crucial idea about most Olympic sports – luck plays a significant role in who wins medals [especially second and third places, the kinds that are realistic targets for now for Indian athletes].

Let me elaborate.

I made a visual representation of how closely some Indians over the years and at Rio have missed out on either medals or medal round qualifications using the data on the relative margin [in percentage] between the nearest competitor [or qualifying mark] and what the Indian achieved. The tinier the dot, the closer the margin. In almost all cases the margin was less than a fraction of a percent, a variation so small it could have been caused by anything – a small misalignment on PT Usha’s hurdles in 1984, a strong wind in Milkha Singh’s race at Rome in 1960, or the tiniest of imperfections in the groove of the muzzle of a shooter’s gun – that is really outside the control of the athlete.

Bindra  tweeted to a journalist when he mentioned that Gagan Narang had the qualification ‘in the bag’ with ten shots left that

The 5 time Olympian knew what he was talking about. In candid accounts in his superb book A Shot At History [co written with Rohit Brijnath] Bindra offers details of why shooting is so difficult – ‘Shooting is different from tennis and swimming, it is not structured towards repetition, it allows for few brilliant encores.’  There is some solid statistical reasoning behind that statement.

Later in the book, he opens up about his failure at London.

‘I was incredibly close in London but impossibly far. Of the three 9s I shot in my last 10 shots two were 9.9s. They were close to a 10 but counted only as 9. They were in fact 0.1mm away from a 10. You know how tiny .1mm is – it is less than the dot that precedes the 1.’ He compares how things unravelled in 2012 as compared to 2008, ‘In Beijing with the rifle put in a vice the grouping of 10 pellets was 5.4mm. Now it was 6mm. It’s not an excuse, it’s just a shooter’s everyday irritation.’

That everyday irritation he describes is what in stats lingo would be called regression to mean. Any ‘normal process’ [an archer shooting an arrow, a shooter at the range aiming at a target 10 meters away, a gymnast trying to stick a landing after a vault, a golfer shooting a round of golf] usually has variations which are grouped around its true average or mean.  The variation happens because of two reasons – factors under the control of who is in charge of the process [in this case, the athlete] and factors that are random, i.e. not under the athlete’s control. With practice, an elite athlete can try and eliminate the first cause but there’s really nothing they can do about the second.  Thus despite their best efforts, there will be times where they will fall agonizingly short.

Explaining how a ski jumper has two jumps and they tend to do well on their second jump if they had a poor jump and vice versa, Daniel Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking Fast And Slow’ writes – ‘The point to remember is that the change from the first to the second jump does not need a causal explanation’, like the ones sports commentators tend to give. He says it is ‘a mathematically inevitable consequence of the fact that luck played a role in the outcome of the first jump’.

We witnessed this with Aditi Ashok, the 18 year old golfer who shot two great rounds to be in medal contention but could not keep up – regressed to the her mean essentially – in the last two rounds and finished 41st, a commendable achievement still because she was up against the world’s best. But she did not ‘blow a chance to win a medal’ because she really punched above her weight. To truly contend she’ll be the first to tell you that she needs to get better. And given that she is barely 18, she certainly will. There is still a lot of work she needs to do on the ‘variability’ due to the factors under her control – her shot making, putting etc.

Looking at the heartbreak chart again you could say some of the misfortune that our athletes suffered [for which many an unkind word were said to them too] was that ‘mathematically inevitable consequence…of luck’ Another factor that exacerbates this is the fact that with time in short supply Olympics events tend to have very short and sharp formats [eliminations, knockouts etc are the norm].

Close but no cigar

CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR – Olympics heartbreak, mapped. 

This effectively means that while skill is important, luck becomes an important factor too. The athletes at the very top will always have enough of a margin above the rest to allow for such variations and maybe still win gold, but like I mentioned, it is a closer and more chance dependent scene lower down the table where athletes of similar calibre are bunched together in a format that does not allow for the full skill advantage to play out.

In his book Moneyball, Michael Lewis explains how in baseball playoff season where teams win or lose based on short 5 or 7 game series rather than a long 162 game season is a ‘giant crapshoot’. He cites Pete Palmer, a sabermetrician who wrote the book The Hidden Game Of Baseball, and his calculation of the role of chance. Palmer calculated that the average difference due to skill between teams is about one run per game, while the average difference due to luck is about four runs a game. The simple translation, as Lewis puts it, is that ‘Baseball science may still give a team a slight edge but that edge is overwhelmed by chance.’ He calls it the ‘sample size problem’.

In most Olympic sports too that is the case. Now the question you might logically have is why, then, do only we [India] seem to have this rotten luck? The short answer to that is that our athletes in general are not sharp or trained enough to have their average levels of performances higher than most elite ones competing in their discipline. A Bindra’s loss is truly heartbreaking because he is an exception but if we had more competing at the level he does, even in the crapshoot of short Olympic formats the dice would have rolled our way at times. Sadly, it does not.

This is something that we have to keep in mind as we watch these sports, which unlike team sports or sports whose formats are different [leagues etc] will keep throwing up such frustrations all the time. The fact that we really pay attention only once in four years or so makes the situation worse. So, how can we battle this demon of regression to the mean that seems hell bent on denying us Olympic glory and keeps feeding troll bait to the likes of Piers Morgan? A few ideas on the next, and last, post in this series – Revelations.

 

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The Olympics Pop Quiz

Been paying attention to the Rio Olympics? Good. Now it’s time to get your pencils sharpened and your quiz game on fleek, to tackle the Olympics pop quiz. 

Q1. 12 minutes is significant in context of the Rio Olympics because:

A. It was the time taken by muggers to go through swimmer Ryan Lochte’s pockets because he was wearing cargo pants

B. It was the length of a controversial bathroom break taken by Kei Nishikori in the bronze medal game v Rafael Nadal after he lost the second set

C. It is the average time taken from the beginning of each Games for unbridled optimism about India’s chances to turn into downright cynicism

D. It is the amount of time Usain Bolt would take to reach Kingston from Rio if he could run in a straight line.

Q2. “Whatever” was…

A. The response of Ryan Lochte when he was being mugged

B. Vijay Goel when he was trying to type Dipa Karmakar’s name

C. The summary of strategy discussions between points when Bopanna and Paes were playing

D. McKayla Maroney’s thought bubble in this picture

Mackyla

Q3. In this picture,

kATIE

US swimmer Katie Ledecky is waiting for

A. Receiving her gold medal

B. her competitiors to finish so that they can come to get their silver and bronze and then she can get her gold medal

C. Someone named Godot

Q4. When asked if he is really retiring after the Olympics, champion Indian shooter Abhinav Bindra responded by

A. Offering to check in with Shahid Afridi and Lionel Messi and get back

B. Offering to sell his rifle

Q5. Michael Phelps has more gold medals all time than

A. All but 32 of the 205 countries competing at Rio

B. The Conquistadors, Fort Knox and Goldfinger combined

C. Meh. Phelps Schelps. Leonidas of Rhodes RULES!

Q6. The average number of shoes worn by each runner at the finish line of the women’s 3000m steeplechase Heat 3 of Round 1 was

A. 2

B. 1.94

C. 0

Q7. On which of these railway ticket collectors turned athletes is a biopic NOT being released this year?

A. Mahendra Singh Dhoni

B. Lalita Shivaji Babar

Q8. Which of these is British long distance runner Mo Farah’s favourite Chumbawamba lyric?

A. “I get knocked down”

B. “But I get up again”

C. “You’re never gonna keep me down”

Q9. Which half of SanTina won a medal at this Olympics?

A. Sania Mirza

B. Martina Hingis

C. None of them

Q10. Rank in the order of least to most terrifying when any of these things turn green…

A. A traffic light

B. Dr. Bruce Banner

C. The water in the Rio Olympics diving pool

Q11. This is a picture from

Fencing

A. The Olympics fencing competition

B. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Q12. Brady Ellison is

Brady

A. An elite champion American archer

B. Leo DiCaprio auditioning in disguise for The Hunger Games reboot

BONUS QUESTION: This picture represents Usain Bolt reacting to

Bolt

A. South African Wayde Niekirk’s World Record shattering 400m run

B. The awesomeness of this quiz

ANSWERS

1 (B) Kei Nishikori did take a long-ish bathroom break after the second set. And his opponent Rafa was Al Pacino levels furious.Al-Pacino-Out-of-Order

2. (A) Evidently, Lochte had had enough of that s***!

3. (A) But with the margins she had, can’t rule out B either. Katie ledecky

4. (B) Not sure if it’ll be up on eBay though.

5. (A) But let’s just say if the Gold Standard were ever to return, the new central bank of the world would be called Phelps-deral Reserve.

6. (B) Out of the 17 runners, Etenesh Diro lost her shoe in a collision and left us with this iconic image. Diro(Diro eventually was allowed by the IAAF to compete in the finals despite finishing outside the qualifying places.Lost shoes do always lead to Cinderella stories, huh?)

7. (B) Babar was the first Indian after PT Usha to qualify for the finals of a track event at the Olympics. She finished tenth in the final of the 3000m steeplechase.

8. ALL OF THEM. Farah fell down during the finals of the 10,000 meters but recovered, got up and won gold. No sweat. Move over, Rocky theme, Tubthumping is the new inspiration.

9. (C) TRICK QUESTION! In the middle of the Olympics, we had news that SanTina had ceased to exist! (Hingis, of course, did win a silver in the women’s doubles)

10. I’d be terrified of B, but really, C was quite shocking.

11. (A) These are not sabers you are looking for.

12. (A) But then, with Leo, you never know. He ate raw bison liver for The Revenant, after all.

BONUS QUESTION: (A) Niekirk smashed a 17-year old mark set my Michael Johnson, but then again, admit it, this quiz was pretty awesome, right?

 

 

 

 

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India’s Rio tryst – Episode II: Exodus

This is part two of a four part series I am writing on India at the Rio Olympics. Part I is here.

Cp3SeEaUAAArJNB

Dipa Karmakar may have finished fourth and got no medal but she blazed a trail for all of India. While individual cases are invariably inspiring, watching Indian athletes come back without medals, though, unfortunately, adds up soon

Crazy little thing called hope. A friend of mine paraphrased Queen very well in capturing the experience of watching sport in general and India at the Olympics in particular. Yesterday evening, the eve of India’s Independence Day, was a particularly surreal stretch of watching sport for me personally. And trust me, I have been through a few doozies in that department. I was following the India v Belgium quarterfinal in hockey, Saina Nehwal’s match in badminton and Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna battling it out against the Czech pair for the mixed doubles tennis bronze medal. To come later was the appearance in the finals of the vault at the gymnastics of Dipa Karmakar, who had become the first female gymnast to represent India at the Olympics against odds so insurmountable that they would make Rocky Balboa bow down in respect.

Each of these instances ignited that most dangerous thing of all – hope. In The Hunger Games, President Snow has a chilling assessment of the emotion that is humanity’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. “Hope”, he says, “It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous.” His context was more nefarious but as a nation we are suckered silly into hoping when the quadrennial Olympics come along. This year, to Rio, we sent the largest ever contingent of athletes and after 6 medals at London, expectations were naturally amplified. But what unfolded was a sort of a perfect storm that took hopes and dreams and crushed them mercilessly in its wake, spreading enough disillusionment that the hardest of hardest die hards’ foundations of faith were shaken. Since the day the Games began, the bad news kept coming – eliminations in team archery to a World Champion and World No. 4 side Russia in the quarterfinals, a first round loss in the tennis men’s and women’s doubles, eliminations in shooting, eliminations in individual archery… I could go on, but you get the idea. Day after day with no medals and after a point, the steady stream of shattered dreams and decimated hope begins to gnaw at your optimism. For a majority, the patience runs out quickly and optimism’s dying bright flash ignites the deadly cinders of resentment. The conversation around Indian sport and sportspersons, as it does almost every Olympics, becomes toxic faster than the water at Rio’s diving pool turned green because of Hydrogen Peroxide.

Back to the Independence Day eve. India scored first against Belgium and led 1-0 at the half. 30 more minutes of holding on to that scoreline and India would be in an Olympics semi final for the first time in 36 years, for the first time ever in my lifetime. Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna lost the opening set but seemed to come roaring back in the second, Mirza exulting as they broke for 3-1, clearly sending the message how badly she wants that medal. Saina Nehwal with a heavily strapped right knee battled the Ukranian world no. 61 and tried to overcome her limited movement by trying for sheer power in a match she needed to win to enter the knockouts. But these were just flickers that would get cruelly extinguished. A clearly injured Saina would lose in straight sets, Mirza and Bopanna would blow their advantage and the Czechs would serve the match out winning the second set 7-5, and India would allow two goals with just one quarter left to lose to Belgium 3-1. It was devastating. It was cruel. I have followed both Sania Mirza and Saina Nehwal for practically their entire careers and was gutted at what unfolded. So were they surely. Sania Mirza’s tears at the press conference said it all. I had been a believer in Indian hockey’s resurgence since the nadir of not qualifying for Beijing in 2008 and was praying for just that one break. It was not to be at Rio.

Earlier in the Games, we had to endure watching Beijing gold medallist Abhinav Bindra finish fourth by the narrowest of margins in the finals of the 10m Air Rifle. Being the brave and absolute champion that he is, he made no excuses for the performance saying that he gave it his best and it wasn’t good enough and apologizing. Although he had a genuine handicap – his rifle sight (an important piece of equipment in a sophisticated sport where the margins are literally fractions of millimeters) had broken just before the final and he had to make do with it.

It is not just hard but impossible to criticize results when you take a closer look at the trajectory most Indian athletes take to be at the Games and the odds they battle once they get there. There is a well established string of research in psychology that says that we tend to respond to individual cases with more empathy than a group of similar cases. That is why charities, for example, send us donation requests with the picture of one orphaned child or a starving person – we are more likely to donate in that situation than if they sent us some statistics about orphaned children who need help or the issue of hunger. Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon published a paper in 2007, where he called this phenomenon our capacity to “experience affect”. A similar scene plays out when we watch sport, which fundamentally is an emotional activity, made doubly so by the fact that we are cheering our country on. Thus, while we relate to individual stories and want them to succeed and even invest heavily emotionally in them, when it comes to the macro number we seem to fall back to the “system sucks”” and “nothing can be done refrain” or simply become numb to, what Slovic calls “the plight of “the one” who is “one of many” in a much greater problem“.

As famed psychology researcher Seymour Epstien had put it, “There is no dearth of evidence in everyday life that people apprehend reality in two fundamentally different ways, one variously labeled intuitive, automatic, natural, non-verbal, narrative, and experiential, and the other analytical, deliberative, verbal, and rational.” It is the equivalent of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. We affect reality by choosing which lens we view it through.

There was something incredibly poetic when a nation came together literally at midnight to watch a young gymnast perform one of the most difficult manouvers in the sport. Dipa Karmakar dazzled the world landing the Produnova Vault (and actually scoring more than the Russian gymnast who invented the move) and finished 4th in the final missing out on the podium by just a whisker. She finished ahead of a Chinese gymnast which is an incredible statistic by itself. Her achievement was a more than about medals and results, it was about inspiration. And we were right to be celebrating and lauding her and putting our “affect” lenses on to focus on what she had brought us (joy, a sense of belief, courage, pride and unity) and not on what she had not (an Olympic medal). There is a similar story of Dattu Bhokanal who finished 15th in the Sculls event at Rowing. Lalita Babar, who qualified for the 3000m steeplechase final with a national record time, has a similar story too. In each case, there might be no medals coming but individually these stories would move anyone but those who have a heart of stone.

Sadly, though, at the macro level these add up for dismal reading. Day 10 of the Olympics and a country of a billion plus people has no Olympic medals to show for all its efforts. As soon as the lens changes, so does reality. So, what is the rational explanation for the medals drought? Surely we cannot fault the size of Dipa’s heart, or Bindra’s courage, or Saina’s injured knee for that.

That’s what I’ll try to take a stab at in the next post – Numbers.

 

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India’s Rio tryst – Episode I: Genesis

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Success at the Olympics can be inspiring and fascinating, but India’s relationship is more complicated. [Photo is of American cyclist Kristin Armstrong showing her gold medal off to her son, Lucas]

Watching India in the Olympics is like riding along in the Millennium Falcon. You keep finding yourself saying “I have a bad feeling about this” and whenever you get your hopes up about someone probably winning something or landing a medal, there are C3PO equivalents who keep reminding you how slim the chances actually are. And because we do not inhabit the Star Wars universe where Han Solo always manages to brush it all off with a “Never tell me the odds” rebuff, the C3PO types turn out to be annoyingly right.

Every four years, there is always a frenzy around the Indian squad going to the Olympics, carrying huge expectations, and every four years a depressingly familiar narrative plays out. I have written about this in 2012 and frankly, what has happened so far in Rio 2016 is no different to how it was going back then. That being the case, I could have just reproduced my post from four years ago, but there is something else that seems to be a trend at Rio about how we are reacting to our athletes’ performances. There have always been detractors in the Ramadhir Singh (or Piers Morgan, but I’d go with the ruthless killer from Gangs of Wasseypur here; he’s the nicer guy) mould (“Beta tumse na ho payega” Rough translation: Not your jam, son.) who come flocking out the moment the first medal prospect tanks and usually the rest of the narrative is about some soul searching about sporting administration, our sports “culture” (or lack thereof) and what needs to be done for the next Games.

Then there is a sensible minority, usually sports journalists or those in the know about the athletes and their struggles who spring to their defence and put things in larger context and perspective, which while being temporary succour to those stung by defeat, nonetheless provide a sobering assessment. There seems to be a feeling that this Olympics, this encouragement and mollycoddling of our athletes has gone a tad too far. That we are somehow being ‘apologists’ for the athletes out there. There’s this insidious thought process of a no-win situation creeping in which damns you if you criticize the athletes (“You have no idea what they have gone through. Swim a lap, run a mile, or shoot a round before you talk”) and damns you if you don’t (“They have gone there to win, participation is for pansies”).

The extremes are fuelled by a sense of shame and guilt. The second one stems from the shame of watching our nation sidelined on a global stage, reduced to a mere footnote as we watch hours upon hours of live footage of how a tiny Fiji or a “Infosys like” Singapore win medals. The first one stems from a sense of guilt that we have not followed these sports or these sportspersons for four years and now suddenly we expect them to win everything. And that is how it begins, the endless spiral that repeats in four year cycles, the genesis of assessing sports ad hoc. I am here to try and balance the two points and put together a few thoughts to give you a broader context and possibly a middle path. I have no special knowledge (I am not an insider, or a journalist, or even a sportsperson) but I am passionate about sports in general and a fan. My heart also aches when I watch an Indian athlete lose, I also let criticism (fair and unfair) loose in the heat of the moment. But the Olympics are a great unifying spectacle that bring the world together and they should bring us together as a sporting nation. In some senses the Games do but then the labels start creeping in the moment the exodus of our athletes begins.

So, in the next part, I’ll start by considering exactly that – the road to checking into heartbreak hotel, and how to deal with it.

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Sister Act

With Serena Williams capturing her record equaling 22nd Grand Slam title, and teaming up with her sister, Venus, to capture the doubles Wimbledon title as well, the Williams sisters’ dominance of tennis continues. 

But which of the duo of sisters is responsible for which bit of the dominance? And how much do you recall about them? The handy quiz below will help you find out.

  
There are only two possible answers to all questions in this quiz – Serena Williams, and/or Venus Williams. Here we go.

1. Which of the sisters won a Grand Slam title first? 

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

2. Which of the sisters has also won the mixed doubles title at Wimbledon? 

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

3. Who once took the ‘Which Williams Are You?’ Quiz on ESPN and got “Very much Venus”?

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

4. Who was once defended against online trolls by JK Rowling? 

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

5. Who was battling an illness for most of the 2011 season? 

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

6. Who has never appeared in a Hollywood movie? 

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

7. Among the sisters, who appeared in Beyoncé’s Lemonade?

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

8. Who holds the edge in their head to head record at Grand Slam finals? (They have played eight.)

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

9. Whose quote was “I’m really exciting. I smile a lot, I win a lot, and I’m really sexy.”

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

10. A documentary aired this June on Epix, an American TV channel about which of the sisters? 

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

11. A Maiken Baird & Michelle Major co-directed documentary released in 2013 in the US about which of the sisters? 

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

12. Which of the sisters has played in India at a WTA tour event? 

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

ANSWERS

1. Serena. She won the US Open in 1999 as the first of her 22, so far. Venus opened her account at Wimbledon 2000. 

2. Serena. In 1998.

3. Venus. The quiz, evidently is quite accurate. You can try it out. 

4. Serena. After a troll said she’s “built like a man”. Rowling had this to say

5. Both. Venus was battling an autoimmune disease & Serena a pulmonary disorder all through 2011.

6. Venus. Serena, most recently, played herself in Pixels. 

7. Serena. Bey was in attendance at the Wimbledon 2016 final where Serena equaled Steffi Graf. 

8. Serena. 6-2.

9. Serena.

10. Serena. It was titled ‘Serena’.

11. Both. It was called Venus & Serena and tracked their difficult 2011 season when both were battling tough illnesses. 

12. Both. They played in the Sony Ericsson Bangalore open where they met in the final. 

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