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