Nirmal Shekar

Letter to an anonymous athlete

"The Olympic Games is not only about superstars like Bolt and Phelps." File Photo

"The Olympic Games is not only about superstars like Bolt and Phelps." File Photo

Dear friend,

There you were, making up the rear, willing your sinewy arms and legs to do their very best to get you ahead of the ones in front of you. It was a Perfect 10 for effort. But for reasons little known to you — and wholly determined by your biological fate and environmental circumstances — you failed to get anywhere near the ones that eventually stepped on to the podium to be decorated by Olympic officials smiling their well-rehearsed smiles.

While you were running, you might not have given a thought to how many pairs of eyes that were trained on you, from the stands or on television screens all over the world. My guess is, not too many. Perhaps a handful. Mine were among them.

And I saw you, too, standing well away from centre-stage after the race, your face a sepulchral mask, wondering what went wrong. After all the long hours of training, after all the strict commitment to a special diet-plan, after all the dreams of glory on the Olympic stage, now it was time for you to get back to the athletes’ Village and pack up.

When I saw you, I wondered who you were. Of course, I did not recognise you. Nor will the courtesy car driver who will drop you at the airport, or the (quite possibly grim-faced) immigration officer at Heathrow when he checks your passport and waves you on to the boarding gate.

And in your devastated mind The What Ifs, the What-Might-Have-Beens, and a dozen other negative emotions will haunt you as you shrink into your economy class seat for a lonely journey home. Then there is the torment of broken dreams keeping you awake all night, as you break into a sweat, a dank pall enshrouding your entire being.

What did those guys — Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps or LeBron James — have that I didn’t? I trained as hard as they perhaps did. I was as committed to my work regimen as any of them might have been. But why did I fail, you wonder.

Winner in your own way

But my dear anonymous friend, let me assure you. You were a winner in your own way, no matter that you are back home without a piece of metal, barring some loose change in your pocket. For, without you, and thousands of others like you — both men and women — there would be no Phelps, no Bolt.

It is because you tried your very best and still failed that they turned out to be who they are. Imagine three athletes on a track or in a swimming pool fighting for gold, silver and bronze. The venue would be half empty and television ratings would plummet.

Your effort — and failure — in a way defines the successes of the superstars, and not the other way. Whatever the late American football coach, Vince Lombardi, might have said about success — Winning is everything — get on with life and with your athletic pursuits, my friend.

That is a goddamn lie. If it was true, the world’s population would be less than one millionth of what it is today. Winning — the way it is defined in sport, commerce and much else in life — is NOT everything. It does matter in certain key areas of human activity because the very survival of the species depends on it — but not elsewhere, and certainly not in sports, least of all in the Olympics.

The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote about the “dignity of failure”, something that “gaudy victory” cannot match. Remember, my friend, when you have fought and failed, there is a certain dignity to it that makes winning look almost boringly quotidian.

So, the Olympic Games is not only about superstars like Bolt and Phelps. It is as much about you and your thousands of comrades, men and women, who anonymously make your way to the grounds and pools and shooting ranges and then quietly depart, unrewarded, to your place of dwelling.

But then, if you dig deeper, you would realise that you have indeed been rewarded. There are greater rewards than tiny pieces of metal. Yours is such a one. For you gave it your best shot and that is, ultimately, what matters. If nobody — or hardly anybody — noticed, then who cares? You know you did it. Doesn’t that bring a sort of satisfaction and soul-lifting feeling that is very, very special? Think about it. I know it does.

For, as a writer, I know that I will not always write the perfect sentence, that I will never be good enough to leave my imprint on history. But that is never going to stop me from tapping away at my keyboard. So long as it makes sense to me, and to a few thousands who happen to read my stuff, I know that I can steer clear of the soul-shattering feeling of abject failure.

Now you will perhaps know what I mean. Without men and women like you, there is no Olympics. This is not woolly-headed idealism or head-in-the-clouds nonsense on stilts. It is, quite simply, the truth.

As a school kid, I had two heroes — Bob Dylan and John Lennon. “There is no success like failure,” wrote Dylan. So, see you in rocking Rio de Janerio in four years’ time, my friend. Maybe you will lay your hands on a precious piece of metal out there. But even if you don’t, don’t stop dreaming.

“You may say I’m a dreamer! But I’m not the only one.”

That’s from Lennon’s immortal Imagine . What we need when it comes to our conception of failure in sport, my friend, is an inversion of perception.

Best wishes,

Your admirer


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Printable version | Jun 10, 2022 11:06:06 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/nirmal_shekar/letter-to-an-anonymous-athlete/article3728271.ece