On July 26 at the women’s 55kg weightlifting competition, Hidilyn Diaz had an impossible choice. She could lift what she had already lifted before and win a sure silver or lift two kilograms more than she had ever lifted – one more than her competitor - and attempt the gold Philippines had never won in their 105 years of Olympic participation.
Weightlifting is a dangerous sport. If you can’t balance your lift, or lose grip, the weight can crush, paralyse, injure or occasionally kill. Lifting a full two kilograms more than she ever had meant Hidilyn would risk her life for – ironically – a nation half of whose population had called her anti-national and threatened to kill her and her family barely two years ago.
What would Hidilyn do? More importantly, I asked myself, what would I do in a situation like this?
“खुद से जीतने की जिद्द है, मुझे खुद को ही हराना है। मै भीड़ नही हूं दुनिया की, मेरे अंदर एक जमाना है।”
The poet says, “I am adamant to win against myself, I have to defeat ‘me’. I am not a crowd in the world, there’s an eternity in me.”
Tokyo 2020 was an immoral event in the middle of so much agony and death. Yet, as I had written, one can cheer the sportspersons without cheering for the event because each one of them carried the loss of their nation in them. Besides, in a de-globalizing world, perhaps a global event where people compete fairly, is needed more than ever.
So I followed the Games and cheered, laughed, and shed tears with thousands of athletes from the world. I cried because some moments moved me and inspired me to better myself through my daily pain and struggle. Here I present to you a few involving the world. In the second part, I’ll share my favourite moments from the Indian contingent.
During the 1936 Olympics, two Japanese pole-vault winners cut the bronze and silver medals they had won into half and fused them together. The next best thing happened this year when Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar and Italy's Gianmarco Tamberi jumped multiple times to decide the high-jump winner but when they couldn’t, Mutaz asked if they could have two gold medals. The referee agreed because it is allowed as per rules.
Tamberi jump-hugged Barshim and cried. He’d stand up but he’d fall down again all the while sobbing inconsolably. Even Barshim couldn’t help himself and cried so did his coach, and Tamberi’s team because in 2016 Tamberi had injured himself. When he returned to compete a year later, he was so terrible he went into depression. The one who brought Tamberi out of it, gave him direction and hope that saw him compete again, was none other than the person he was tied with for the gold: Mutaz Essa Barshim – who has himself battled injury – and it was again Barshim, who when the referee said they could continue trying to decide the winner, asked if they both can have gold.
I am sure like me, millions across the world have watched the clip, again and again, tearing up each time because it is one of the most beautiful moments in sporting history which says that winning need not be about defeating another.
George Sheehan had once said, “Happiness is different from pleasure. Happiness has something to do with struggling, enduring, and accomplishing.” You only had to look at the faces of the Olympians to know what this means, every single one of them.
After winning the silver in the women's 200-meter final, Namibian sprinter Christine Mboma, carried an oversized flag of her country. It seemed funny but few knew that the flag was fitting to the humongous personal and national victory. That wasn't just the first medal for a Namibian woman, her country's first Olympic medal since 1996 but also because she was barred from competing in the woman's 400 meters due to naturally occurring raised testosterone level or hyperandrogenism. No wonder the teen ran like her life depended on it and came from behind to clinch silver.
In the middle of the Olympics, the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (commonly known as the Refugee Convention) - the main international legal document relating to refugee protection – fittingly turned 70 because Tokyo 2020 is the second Olympics that a Refugee team participated. This team is important for many reasons. One is that today the UN refugee treaty is at risk because nations are increasingly refusing to take helpless refugees from anywhere and secondly, like when the treaty was promulgated in the middle of the ruins of the Second World War – we are at the beginning of a crisis where local wars and worse - climate change - will turn perhaps billions into refugees over the decades – including maybe you and I and citizens of the very nations refusing refugees right now.
UK gold medallist diver Tom Daly broke a sort of non-Olympic record after he became the first man to be recorded knitting at the games as he sat watching the springboard final. This Olympic has been brilliant for breaking stereotypes because Tom wasn’t the only one doing so. After winning the quarterfinal match (eventually settling for bronze), Australia's first Olympic boxing medallist in 33 years Harry Garside, took off his gloves to reveal painted fingernails. That’s not all. He is a certified plumber who loves to do ballet and revealed he’s not the only boxer who does so.
There’s more to Garside who said: "I was going to wear a dress to the opening ceremony, but I didn't want to offend anyone". For those of you judging, do look at paintings of male European royalty from before the invention of the camera. They – even the king – wore high heels, stockings, frills and many other adornments that are today sadly considered too feminine for men. Truth is, they aren’t and if you think they’d make you look beautiful, you should go ahead and wear them.
Do you know Fiji with a population no larger than a small Indian town, or a suburb in any Indian metro, won a gold and a bronze, both in Rugby 7. The men won gold defeating the mighty Kiwis, the women bronze. What is more inspiring is that most of its players are extremely poor. One of the star players in the men’s game, Jerry Tuwai learned the game using coconut and plastic bottles and slept on the street. He has ‘knife’ and ‘fork’ written on his shoes to remind him that he plays to help provide for the family. The national is personal and vice versa for many like Jerry.
Not too different from Hidilyn Diaz who comes from a poor family and had tried weight lifting with older boys of her family and didn’t even know what the Olympics were before 2008 when she first participated as a 17-year-old. In 2012 she sustained an injury that left her mentally and physically wrecked. In 2020 post the COVID19 pandemic, she was stuck in Malaysia which was under lockdown with gyms closed. She fought loneliness and depression in a foreign country, lifted metal and scraps to train.
Olympics became political when Belarusian Krystsina Tsimanouskaya criticised her coaches who forcibly tried to put her back on a plane to her country. But the brave woman who couldn’t speak English or Japanese, used Google Translate to call for help from the Tokyo police at the airport who responded quickly and saved her for what was sure to have been a cruel fate back in the country ruled by one of the cruelest dictators in the world. Not just that, her call for help was heard by Poland who granted her asylum.
A silver medal in woman’s shot put on her neck, Raven Saunders from the US crossed her arms over her head into an ‘X’ which she explained later was a, “Shout out to all my Black people, shout out to all my LBGTQ community, shout out to everybody dealing with mental health. Because at the end of the day, we understand that it’s bigger than us, and it’s bigger than the powers that be.” This was bold of her because International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach had warned athletes not to make "political demonstrations" or express their private views on the medal podium.
I could not find any data about the same, but this must be the first Olympics where not only were almost all participants at least millennials, but a good part of it was Gen-Z or those born in the 1990s to early 2000s. This new generation of athletes, not raised on the desperation, want and ideologies of their previous generations, are most prone to helping each other. There was ample evidence of the same in multiple events.
In skateboarding which had the youngest contingent (in one event the gold medallist was all of 13 in an event where there is literally no age limit), competitors were seen egging each other on, enjoying their game rather than being desperate to win.
When Venezuelan Yulimar Rojas won the gold medal by breaking the world record in the triple jump, the first person to run over and hug her was her competitor in second place. When South African Tatjana Schoenmaker won gold in the 200 meters’ breaststroke swimming by breaking the world record, Lilly King and Annie Lazor who had won silver and bronze, both of the USA, swim over to her lane to congratulate her.
The same Lilly King, when asked about ‘settling for silver’ said frankly, “Excuse my French but the fact that we don't celebrate silver and bronze is bullshit.” She was right. Silver and Bronze medalists are not losers but could be someone who had had a rough day or bad luck or lost by a whisker.
Yes, there were a few moments of unruly athletes, but they were overshadowed by these moments, like that of the New Zealand Rugby 7 team who lost to the tiny but mighty Fiji in the finals, but went around the Olympic village singing mesmerizing Maori.
There were many great moments. Qatar, Bermuda and Philippines won their first-ever golds. This year the highest ever i.e. 93 different nations won a medal and the number of nations winning gold was also the highest at 63 – one of them being India. Three new nations joined the medals table for the first time: San Marino, Turkmenistan, and Burkina Faso. And let’s not forget the Olympic Cockroach who had its 15 seconds of fame and has now opened a Twitter account.
As you can see with these and tons of other examples that are too many to recount, Tokyo 2020 has been amazing with people sharing medals, cheering competition, helping each other in the middle of a game, boxers knitting, rugby players singing, people standing up for themselves and others etc.
I wonder if it is a pandemic thing, where the last year and a half have been a wake-up call for people regarding what is truly important and beautiful in this fragile life, or is it just Gen Z and Gen Alpha, the most woke generations of them all that is doing this.
I began by wondering if the Olympics in the middle of a pandemic was worth it. I end by wishing it had lasted longer because if there is one thing we need in abundance, it is kindness and the hope of deliverance from the desperation that surrounds us.
The most inspiring part of Hidilyn Diaz’s story is that two years before the Olympics, she had been called an anti-national and falsely implicated in a plot to overthrow her government. Half the nation was baying for her and her family’s blood.
Hence, Hidilyn had a choice: to let the past get in the way and play it safe or to risk it all in one 127Kg clean and jerk, two kilograms more than she had ever lifted. She chose the latter. It was dangerous. She was risking her life. As she lifted the weight, it was not just every muscle in her body that was strained to breaking point but her emotions as well. With the weight still over her head, tears rained from her eyes. It was as if she was holding the impossible weight of events of the last two years.
But she did it. Moments after she had thrown the weight down, she could barely manage her own weight as she sobbed for she knew she had etched her name in history by bringing her country’s first-ever Olympic gold. I am sure what she enjoyed as much, was being congratulated by the same man she was accused of trying to overthrow.
In life there rarely are closures to trauma but thankfully, the Olympics do afford a few to its athletes. And that is just one of the many reasons the Olympics this year was worth watching.
(Satyen K. Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. He loves to let his pen roam the intersection of artificial intelligence, consciousness and quantum mechanics. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)
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