Human strengths and frailties on display

WHEN the 28th Olympiad entered the home stretch it was difficult to remain unaffected by a sense of deja vu.

S. THYAGARAJAN

Even though the erstwhile Soviet Union has been fragmented, the region retains its sports culture. Proof of this is the victory of Ukraine's Yuiry Bilongog in shot put. Many others from that belt were also successful in the Athens Games. — Pic. NICK LAHAM/GETTY IMAGES-

WHEN the 28th Olympiad entered the home stretch it was difficult to remain unaffected by a sense of deja vu. A true sporting carnival it was in every sense of the word; but human frailties somewhat dented that image. It was not merely the increasing recourse to dope to achieve ends by despicable, unfair means, but it reflected, poignantly perhaps, the degeneration of the human race.

Sport is not sport if it does not project a new dynamics, or a different dimension to embellish the element of fantasy. When that occurs perceptions change and equations are altered, giving way to something fresh, exotic and vibrant.

To provide an emphatic answer whether all these happened at Athens will be impossible. Evidence of a new order emerging was definite as China showed remarkable progress in the first week.

A dozen golds

However, the United States clawed its way up on the board, thanks to a dozen golds in aquatics, to slot China to the second place. China's status as an emerging giant in aquatics was destroyed by a strict, selective application of dope tests in the World Championship a few years ago.

True, some Chinese did test positive, but the single-minded focus to hunt them as a response to the propaganda by the Western media almost reduced the nation to a non-entity in aquatics. But today, the Chinese divers are matchless; and the United States is not able to bring out a star like Greg Louganis.

The doping charade involving the two Greeks, Konstas Kenteris and Ekaterini Thanou, triggered a polemical war between the Greek media, officials and the International Olympic Committee. The local media was devastating in its reaction to the manner in which the IOC publicists had handled the issue. They had dangled the withdrawn accreditation cards in front of the cameras and thus humiliated a nation.

The thrust of the debate was that the Americans were left alone in their training camp at Grete. There was even a suggestion that the famous sprinter, Maurice Greene, did not turn up for a dope test when required. The IOC denied the allegation and said that more Americans were tested for dope than athletes from any other contingent.

Power equation

It is interesting to visualise what the power equation would have been in the Olympics had there not been the disintegration of the Soviet Union. At least in athletics it was clear that the states which were part of the former USSR had emerged as definite centres of excellence profiting perhaps from a wonderful system which designed a very healthy and pragmatic sports culture.

The victories of Yuiry Bilongog of Ukraine in shot put, and Yuliya Nestrenko of Belarus in the women's 100 metres confirm this line of thinking.

The feeling that success in sport is proportionate to industrial advancement and prosperity has also been established as a myth. Competitors from Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, and several islands from the West Indies, emphatically prove this. The marvellous running machine called Kenenisa Bekele, who won the 10,000 metres with an Olympic record, symbolises the ethos and excellence of a continent of hidden talent, unexplored human potential and resources. The underlying strength of these men and women comes naturally from hard work and a passion to prove themselves as worthy of human consideration.

Cynosure

Stars like Bekele, Gebrselassie, Maria Mutola and a host of others are gnawing away at the elitism that used to be associated with the Games, which, truly, belong to humanity. But the Olympiads cannot also be without a Michael Phelps, whose quest for an eight-gold haul ended with a nonetheless amazing six golds and two bronzes. This swimmer of extraordinary talent remained a cynosure all through.

So did the pole vaulter, Tracy Dragila, the defending champion, who failed to qualify! She cleared 4.30m when the norm was 4.45m. "I did not make it and that pretty much sucks," she reacted to the verdict. Justin Gatlin emerged as the fastest man of the Olympics with a time of 9.85s. But, on August 22, it was Sweden that remained in the forefront getting three golds, Carolina Kluft in heptathlon, Stefan Holm in high jump and Christian Olsson in triple jump.

Noticeable, too, had been the conquest in new areas, such as the US producing an outstanding gymnast like Paul Hamm who overshadowed the traditional masters from Russia, China and Korea. But what was etched on the mind was the remarkable performance of Romania for whom Catalina Ponor and Daniela Sofronie did the star turn for a team gold. The tears of joy told all the misery that the team was subjected to the last time for dope testing and the travails of that marvellous performer like Andrea Rudicon.

Fading image

The fading image of Russia perhaps was symbolised by the renowned Svetlana Khorkina who could only bag a silver in the women's individual all-around, yielding the gold to Carly Patterson of the US. Can you imagine China and Russia finishing fifth and sixth in the men's team final which Japan won with a fantastic performance by Tomita?

If Rathore's silver in shooting was the silver lining for India, the black clouds came from the weight-lifters, Pratima Kumari and Sanamacha Chanu, both caught in the net of doping. Adding to the fiasco was the lift, or the failure of it by the much publicised Karnam Malleswari in 63 kgs.

The reaction of the officialdom to these sordid developments was predictable, pleading innocence rather than charting out a damage control exercise by forming a committee to investigate.

But the damage caused to the country cannot be wished away. Time was when the Indians were ignored in big competitions, unlike the Chinese. But after Anju George struck a bronze in the World athletics championships and the shooters began performing well on the international stage, India comes into the reckoning and observation. So, hoodwinking people with local, unrecognised lab tests will not do anymore.

Damage to system

Shunning the media and ducking a direct interaction will only cause more damage to the system, if it has not already, with the athletes flopping badly. Shot-putter Bahadur Singh failed in all his three throws and a similar `feat' came from Anil Kumar in discus throw. Against this background, the gallant performance of J. J. Shobha and Soma Biswas in decathlon needs to be commended.

India did not win too many friends by lodging a protest over a goal awarded after the end of the regulation time against New Zealand in men's hockey. More than blaming the umpire, the Indians should ponder why the team struggles so much in the final minutes; it occurred against Australia too when the team had only 37 seconds to withstand and force a draw at 3-3, but lost the match 20 seconds before the hooter. All the resources and energy spent on preparing the team for years evaporated in thin air.

Doping episode

Just as Rathore's silver galvanised the entire contingent, the doping episode left many a red face and a depression. Even the ebullience of the tennis duo, Leander and Mahesh, petered out when a second medal for India was eagerly awaited from a match that stretched into the wee hours.

Olympism as a concept designed by Baron Pierre de Coubertin may have now been transformed into something else. Still his words, "Humanity must take from the heritage of the past all the force it can use to build the future. Olympism is one of these factors," cannot completely be described as irrelevant.