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India and the Great Olympic Tamasha

August 07, 2012 12:56 IST

Even those of us who shudder at the thought of walking to the neighbourhood store, or who have never dipped a foot in a swimming pool or kicked a football in our lives, will watch avidly as great athletic feats are performed by humans of all shapes, sizes, colours and dress codes -- from the head-scarved Saudi ladies to the show-it-all bikini-clad beach volleyball beauties, the beefy weightlifters and immaculately coated and cravat-ed equestrians, says Sherna Gandhy.

Every four years, the world indulges in the great Olympic tamasha.

With its motto in a language no one speaks, its unimaginative logo, its unabashed jingoism often overshadowing the sporting prowess, its cast of thousands performing during much-hyped opening ceremonies, its firework displays that cost more money than what goes as aid to starving Somalian refugees, and its grand and humungously expensive stadia, which may or may not be put to good use after the tamasha is over, depending on whether the tamasha is held in cost-conscious rich countries or profligate poor ones. It can be all summed up in the famous cinematic phrase -- Lights, camera, action.

We may be deluded into thinking that it's the action that is the really important element, but without the lights and the cameras, the action would be less watched and less hyped.

The lights and cameras oil the wheels of any Olympiad. For Olympic sport is not just about running, shooting, hitting, sailing, swimming etc faster and harder than anyone else. It's also about wearing a particular brand of shoes, tee shirt, headband, wristband, and probably hair clip.

It's about eating fries only from McDonald's and chicken only from some other powerful fast food chain, and having an event interrupted to show the same six or seven advertisements on telly over and over again.

So important is the sponsorship that brings in the money, that two lawyers from the organising committee of the London Olympics ran along with the torch throughout its journey across the UK to prevent 'ambush advertising'. So if any unauthorised advertisers thought of slyly inserting their brand in any way that the cameras would pick up, they'd be slapped with lawsuits backed by a 'host city contract' running to 100 pages between the IOC and London. Nothing remotely sporting about that.

With Locog, the London organising committee, receiving £700m from domestic sponsors, lawyers had inspected the 'event zones' around each venue to ensure there was no unauthorised advertising and that 'areas are clean', according to reports.

Of course, none of this matters to us, the spectators. Even those of us who shudder at the thought of walking to the neighbourhood store, or who have never dipped a foot in a swimming pool or kicked a football in our lives, will watch avidly as great athletic feats are performed by humans of all shapes, sizes, colours and dress codes -- from the head-scarved Saudi ladies to the show-it-all bikini-clad beach volleyball beauties, the beefy weightlifters and immaculately coated and cravat-ed equestrians.

And though we watch happily enough most of the time, any sporting event becomes truly exciting and even emotional when it's the under-funded, under-trained, underdogs who come out winners.

The home-grown Indian hockey teams that won eight golds, the diminutive Zola Budd racing in her bare feet, the great African athletes who got their stamina from running to school in the heat and dust probably on an empty stomach.

Here in India, we are surprised and warmed when most of our Olympic contingent comes from places you couldn't find on a map. Some of them from areas so remote from the Hindi heartland that they can barely speak Hindi.

Women from parts of the country where they are treated like third class citizens, lift weights, punch hard, shoot straight and win championships and set records.

All champions train hard and for all it's a gruelling journey to the top. So when a sportsperson trained at world class facilities, with world class coaches, the best of hi-tech equipment, and a team of professionals to ensure physical and mental wellbeing, wins, it is, of course, great.

But it is not like how one felt when the Jamaican Usain Bolt thumped his chest in ecstasy on winning the 100m final in Beijing in 2008 (a spontaneous act by the 22-year-old, that was criticised as disrespectful by IOC President Jacques Rogge, and as costing him a few seconds by a former Olympian).

Or how we feel about the stunning career of the Ethiopian running legend Haile Gebrselassie, whose style of running, with one arm crooked, is attributed to the days when he had to run 10 km to school and 10 km back with his books under his arm.

And even so many decades later, the story of P T Usha, India's most successful athlete ever, brings a lump to the throat. Her superhuman effort to qualify and run in the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984 brought us to the edge of our seats not only because she was an Indian, but because 'beating the odds' took on a whole new meaning for the gangly young woman from an obscure village in Kerala who won her first race wearing an ankle-length skirt, a pavada, because she had never possessed track pants or shoes having run mainly barefoot on the beaches of Payyoli.

Chariots of Fire became the epitome of the sporting film, its theme song played as winners take the podium at the Olympics, because of the back story of high ideals and convictions triumphing over racial and class snobbery.

As sport becomes more computerised and scientifically manipulated and all about big money, raw human endeavour and natural talent, already rare, will become rarer still.

The well trained, perfectly honed and finished athletic machines churned out by government-run systems in the then USSR and now China, and by hi-tech labs in the United States, are fantastic to watch no doubt. But one feels little emotional connect with them.

There's blood, sweat and tears there too -- the Chinese gymnastics women's team was in tears when the Americans snatched the gold medal from them this year -- but, it doesn't move us all that much. One still, of course, watches the Games -- tamasha, extravaganza and all.

No one sits up at night to watch some of the greatest minds in the world receive their Nobel Prize. But we happily do so to watch the Olympics or the Oscars.

That says something about our society I'm sure, but right now, I can't be bothered to figure it out. I'm off to watch Saina Nehwal receive her bronze medal.

Check out: The Best Olympics coverage, only on Rediff.com

Sherna Gandhy