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Rio and remembrances

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Olympians relive memories as the world’s biggest sporting event gets underway tomorrow

In time India is eight-and-a-half hours ahead of Rio. When the greatest sporting event on earth, the Olympics, opens in Rio tomorrow, the city will be waking up to the sounds of the newspaper boys’ cycles and milk packets thrust at the door. But for some, it will be a time to turn on the television sets and watch the legendary football star Pele open Rio 2016. It will once again be a moment of a lifetime that some of our Olympians have savoured, memories that rise every once in four years.

Mercy Kuttan, the first Indian woman athlete to participate in the Commonwealth Games and World Athletics Championship, who has a clutch of records in her name, still has the goose bumps when the track events at the Olympics come alive.

“I ran the 400m heats with the eventual winner (Olga Bryzgina) at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. More than the race, I was thrilled to be in the midst of legendary athletes. We were on the field when the men’s 100m took place and Ben Johnson virtually exploded,” says Mercy, the first Indian woman athlete to win medals in both jumps and sprints.

“Then, 30 minutes later, we were informed that he had been banned. It was shocking. Looking around, there were greats like Carl Lewis, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Jackie Joyner, Evelyn Ashford, Heike Drechler…it was like a dream. They were all so confident, while I still remember how tense all of us were. Perhaps that was the difference.”

There was a time when Indian football held its own in the Olympics. The 1960 Rome Games was one such time. O. Chandrasekharan, a star defender of that team, remembers those moments almost as if it were yesterday.

When the footballers went out to play the opener against Hungary, India’s hockey wizards told them, “Don't concede more than 10 goals. Hungary was the European champion then.”

Chandrasekharan was part of the Indian team that won the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games. “In Rome, we saw Cassius Clay (later became Muhammed Ali) winning his gold and also Wilma Rudolph (who overcame a polio problem as a child) getting her golds.” Though the Indian side finished fourth in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, many consider the 1960 side as the India’s best-ever team.

The former International Olympic Committee chief Juan Antonio Samaranch called the 1996 Atlanta Games as ‘the most exceptional.’ It was also perhaps the biggest ever Games with over 10,000 athletes from 197 countries parade before 83,000 fans, including President Bill Clinton, in a breathtaking opening ceremony. Muhammad Ali, the Olympic boxing champion in Rome 1960 was given the honour of lighting the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony.

“That was an emotional moment. For me being part of the Opening Ceremony, walking with the Indian contingent alongside some of the greatest names in the history of sports, was simply unbelievable. That was a lasting memory of the Games, a memory that will remain with me all my life,” remembers Ambika Radhika, former National senior and the only table tennis Olympian from Kerala.

“Tennis was a game I was interested in. So, rubbing shoulders with Arantxa Sanchez and Mary Joe Fernandez at the Games Village was wonderful. I, along with PVV Lakshmi, Chetan Babboor, Dipankar Bhattacharya, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi watched India play Pakistan in the men’s hockey competition. We shouted our guts out for the team, which if I remember right, ended in a disappointing draw. But we had a whale of a time.”

At 17, she is the baby of the Indian contingent and Rio being her maiden Olympics, Jisna Mathew is very excited.

“She has been to the Asian and World championships but naturally, the Olympics is different. So, you can notice her excitement with each passing moment, when the visa came and when the papers for Rio landed,” says P.T. Usha, Jisna’s coach.

Jisna, the Asian junior champion who has now become one of the lead members of the Indian women’s 4x400m relay team said her dream is to meet some of track’s biggest stars. “I want to meet Allyson Felix, the Olympic and world champion…I’m looking forward to it very much,” says Jisna.

For T.C. Yohannan, the former Asian champion and Asian record holder, memories of the Olympics brings a lot of joy but some pain too.

“I saw Cuban Alberto Juantorena break the world record in the 800m and also Sriram Singh’s brave run in that final which produced the national record, a record that still stands today after 40 years,” reminisces Yohannan.

“I also remember watching Nadia Comaneci in action and decathlete Daley Thompson who became one of the greats of the sport. But I was not lucky in my event. “I had broken the Asian record with a 8.07m at the Asian Games in Teheran but I could not reproduce it at Montreal. Had I done that jump, I would have easily got a bronze medal.”

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 2:47:13 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/Rio-and-remembrances/article14550879.ece

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