Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Olympic Spirit and Us

Olympics for me began with the summer games in Rome, 1960. I was in 7th grade then and I remember my dad excitedly telling me that Pakistan had beaten India in hockey 1-0 after six successive Olympic failures. We were in Bangladesh (East Pakistan then) and it seemed a big deal, particularly because I played in my school hockey team and knew the rules of the game. I wasn’t aware of Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) and Rafer Johnson at the time but I do recall seeing photographs of Wilma Rudolph, winner of god medals in 100 and 200 meters and the 400 meters relay, and telling myself: she has to be the most graceful female sprinter ever. My opinion hasn’t changed in 48 years. Another athlete who captured my imagination was the Ethiopian Abebe Bikila who ran barefoot in the streets of Rome to win the Marathon gold.

I was keenly interested in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics because of the inevitable clash between India and Pakistan in the field hockey final. India regained its supremacy by defeating Pakistan. But I was also expanding my horizon and began to follow other sports with equal passion.

Pakistan beat Australia in the final in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics to win the field hockey gold but that was more or less the beginning of the end for both Pakistan and India. Other countries were rapidly catching up. Although the two nations enjoyed some success afterwards, they would now be lucky to win a bronze medal.

But my interest was already shifting and what I remember reading about the Mexico City Olympics was the long jump record set by America’s Bob Beamon. The guy almost jumped out of sight, setting an astonishing record of 29’2½”, one that stood for 23 years until another American, Mike Powell, broke it with a record of 29’4½” in the World Championship game in Tokyo in 1991. But the dominant story of that Olympics, the Black Power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, passed me by.

On my way from the newly-independent nation of Bangladesh to Halifax, Canada, in 1972 for higher studies, I stopped by in Munich at the invitation of a friend from Dhaka University. The Munich Olympics was the first that I attended in person and I was awed by its sights and sounds. It felt unreal, to be at the center of the sports world where the fastest and the strongest were competing for glory. I had never seen such affluence and even the big moon that hung low at night seemed to be acknowledging the spectacle on the earth below. I was able to catch only one event, a soccer game between West Germany and United States on a warm night. U.S. lost the game 7-0 and my vocal rooting for the underdog brought curious glances from the Germans around me. But I was in sports heaven and was convinced the magic would last forever. I heard about the impossible performance of an American swimmer named Mark Spitz but could not register what it was all about

I left before the Munich massacre. When I landed in Canada, the closing ceremonies were taking place and the shock and horror signaled that Olympics and politics and tragedy would become inseparable in the years to follow.

By the time I came to the United States in 1974, I was a bona fide sports fanatic. I was studying at Temple University in Philadelphia. In August of 1976, I took a train from New York to Montreal – the Adirondack – passing through Hudson Valley and the lush countryside. I was at Montreal from beginning to end and saw several track and field events and, of course, field hockey. The world awoke to a Romanian wunderkind named Nadia Comaneci who scored seven unheard of perfect 10s in gymnastics on her way to three gold medals. I would get up at dawn and take the subway to the main Olympic stadium and start taking photographs right and left, trying to capture as many faces and events as I could. I saw decathlon champion Bruce Jenner in action. But after two weeks of nonstop Olympic excitement, I was happy to return to my apartment at Temple.

After moving to San Jose, California in 1979, my sports fever continued unabated but I was content to watch successive Olympics on TV. Sure, that feeling of being there was irreplaceable but it was also physically demanding, and I was happy to trade immediacy for comfort. Besides, I could see more, even if it meant late-night vigils.

And here we are now, on the eve of the Beijing Olympics. The Web and the papers are full of pundits lamenting the commercialization of Olympics, the doping scandals, the mercenary attitude of some nations to win at the expense of dehumanizing their athletes, and so on. But they are missing the point. For two weeks, the Olympic spirit, however flawed and frayed, will reign supreme and the world will applaud the winners and lend the losers a shoulder to cry on. There is honor in trying to do one’s best, and a Bangladeshi athlete can rejoice equally in having taken part as an American athlete standing on the podium moist-eyed as the Star-Spangled Banner plays. China is expected to dominate the medal count and showcase its emergence as a superpower but that is nothing compared to the ties that will unite the athletes and the fans for a few days and make us believe in our common humanity.

I will be rooting for Michael Phelps to break Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals but it will be tough. He will have to be as perfect as Nadia Comaneci was in Montreal. Actually he will have to do her one better. If that’s not asking for the impossible, I don’t know what is. But it is in the Olympics that the impossible happens. And therein rests its magic. The Olympics reminds us that the impossible is only a limitation of the imagination, that we have it in us to overcome this limitation and discover the hidden gold within. Long live the Olympics spirit!

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