09 Aug 2016 18:57 IST

Duplicate the Olympic spirit? Easier said than done!

Thomas Bach’s vision of the world duplicating the harmony of the Olympic village is too idealistic

The Parade of Nations in Rio, bringing the top athletes from 207 nations together on the world stage, was the culmination of seven years of hard effort by the Brazilians.

For athletes, qualifying for the Olympics is a rare national honour. Most try out in their chosen sport very young — they train hard and for long hours, often under substandard conditions with little or no money. Parents chip in with their life savings. Public funding is rare and enthusiasts try to tap foundations to help cover basic expenses. Corporate sponsorship doesn’t come in frequently or easily either.

But these obstacles do not deter the athletes. They continue to practice and face intense competition from a few others just like them — all wanting to make the team cut so they can proudly represent their nation, and hopefully, have their national anthem played and their national flag raised, while the world watches in awe.

The refugee team

Included in the march this time was a group of athletes which had no flag or national symbol. For the first time, the organising committee allowed 10 athletes to represent the “Refugee Olympic Team” — athletes from nations facing war, strife, violence or ethnic cleansing. Marching just before the host Brazilian contingent, this group, carrying the Olympic flag, attracted the loudest cheers and applause.

A personification of this athlete ethic is Abhinav Bindra, India’s proud flag bearer in Rio, as he led the country’s 123 athletes in the parade. In October 2014, I spoke with Bindra, the country’s only Olympic and World champion, and asked him what he attributed his success to.

Calmly, he replied, “Well, a lot of hard work, I would say. A lot of perseverance and a bloody mindedness to go after my goals. I think I wasn’t talented in the conventional way, but my talent lay in working hard. I really put everything to it.”

He went on, “For the last 20 years, I have had a training schedule of six to seven hours everyday. This included three to four hours of shooting and a lot of physical training. My week consisted of 40-45 hours of training, day in and day out.”

Few people can exhibit this kind of commitment and execute it for a practice season lasting a few months. To continue through this regimen for years on end, with little hope in sight other than a chance of making it to the national team, is a mark of rare character. And if these athletes ever make it to the Olympics, the competition there intensifies by orders of magnitude.

The best or nothing

To win a Gold medal means you are the world’s best athlete in that category. And often, the winning margin is a few milliseconds. After all, there is no more democratic institution than the world of Olympic sports.

Athletes who compete and do not win a medal are often forgotten by the world soon after they return home. If they are young, they try all over again to qualify for the next Olympics, perhaps with a slightly more intense regimen, a different coach or a different strategy.

If they are too old, they retire to private life, having missed out on a lot of what their friends and family experienced: the banter in a school yard, the jokes and laughter on the street and the simple pleasures of growing up. All they have to show for the years of hard work they put in may be an insignificant mention in the local newspaper.

In contrast…

Compare these outstanding leaders with the rest of our so-called ‘high achievers’ in politics, business and industry, for whom money appears to be the only commodity that matters. Brazil’s former president Lula, the person who led the Rio bid, has been embroiled in a massive corruption scandal.

Media reports say executives from state-run firms in Brazil’s oil and the construction industries kicked back profits to government officials. This is, in part, why interim president Michel Temer was booed when he declared the games open.

Meanwhile, the world’s super rich continue to evade taxes by investing in complex and devious schemes, offshore. Government leaders say whatever they want to, get elected, and then change course once in office.

Government policies around the world favour the elite who are well connected to the pillars of power. It took India’s Supreme Court to break the cozy alliance among BCCI, state cricket associations, corporate sponsors, TV networks and politicians. Entire countries — Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain — almost went bankrupt because leaders were too incompetent to know about or intervene in, their countries’ financial disasters.

In his speech in Rio, Thomas Bach, the IOC President called on the world nations to duplicate these Olympic athletes’ spirit. “We are living in a world of crises, mistrust and uncertainty. Here is our Olympic answer: The 10,000 best athletes in the world, competing with each other, at the same time living peacefully together in one Olympic Village, sharing their meals and their emotions.”

Too idealistic?

But Bach vision is far too idealistic and probably misleading. The world is not made of people who have the same outstanding set of values, character, faith, trust and respect as the Olympic athletes. These 10,000 stars are superhuman beings in not only what they have achieved but how they have gone about getting there, whether or not they win a medal.

True, if the world were only made up of such stars, there would be no trouble at all. But to expect the rest of us to act as them and help duplicate life in the Olympic village, is unrealistic, and may even be silly. It can perhaps happen when pigs begin to fly.