TRIUMPH OF VALOUR

A young Chinese woman, Zhang Dan, in an ice-skating arena at the Winter Olympics recently, produced a performance of such astonishing bravery that to watch was to wince and to wonder, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

Sporting artistry dazzles, technique is swooned at, a forehand met perfectly is stirring, a dive unfolding like an athletic poem finds appreciation, but as much as it is something you can never do, you can somewhat understand it, it has a logical explanation, it is born of talent and nurtured through practice, the exquisite offspring of skill and repetition. But there is something unfathomable about boxing with a fractured jaw, running mile after mile in socks saturated in blood, in dismounting from Roman rings with a broken knee, in staying focused after four hours of competition amidst the vomit rising up through the throat.

Yet the athlete — this week a slip of a girl on skates who stayed true to her artistry despite her bruises — who is confronted by pain in the moment, threatened by failure in the arena, faced with embarrassment, challenged by fear, does not submit. Her reply to every painful question asked of herself is valour.

But how do you practise courage in sport? Sports psychologist Sandy Gordon believes courage can be "learnt", through astute coaching in a nurturing environment where the bar on what is possible, physically and thus mentally, is gradually raised. Gradually the athlete pushes herself, almost accustoming herself to hardship, shouldering her way through the barriers of the mind. Divers will land on their backs in practice, skaters on elbows, embarrassed, wounded, unsure. Then they go on.

For Gordon, early experiences of dealing with setbacks help; all athletes fail, all hurt, some build resilience. But it is a fragile thing. Perhaps there are only so many times an athlete can fall over, a limit to how many times he can be visited by pain. Some athletes say, I can't do it any more; some say I can, and explains Gordon, if you think that you probably will.

Boxers make friends with physical punishment, they almost seem to crave it. Even so when Ali fought Ken Norton even though his jaw was broken in the second round there was both beauty and insanity to it, a sense of going to the limit yet also sometimes of going too far. As his ringside doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, admitted in a book: "I felt the separation (of his jaw) with my fingertips, (but) that's when winning took priority over proper medical care. It's sick... As a doctor I should have said `stop the fight'." All these questions demand some answer because a young Chinese woman, Zhang Dan, in an ice-skating arena at the Winter Olympics recently, produced a performance of such astonishing bravery that to watch was to wince and to wonder.

Early into her pairs skating routine with partner Zhang Hao, Dan was propelled into the air like a spinning rag doll, attempting the quadruple salchow, a four-rotation jump of such extraordinary difficulty no one has tried it in competition. Failure was always an option.

Early in the jump itself she must have known, clarity arriving abruptly in mid-air, that it was not going to happen, that she had let go of her partner's hand too early (her explanation), and that in a nanosecond pain was promised, and with it failure. She landed, she collapsed, her knee smacked the ice like a hammer on concrete, her elbow jarred, her legs splayed like a new-born calf unable to stand on rickety legs, she got to her feet, only for momentum to slam her against the fence, her young face a transparent painting of agony.

She could not skate because she could not walk, and Hao held her gently, cradled her as her knee refused to support her. You did not want to look but you had to.

She left the stage. It was over. And then, minutes later, she came back. Why? Who knows? Gordon sees many reasons, and perhaps for Dan it was one of them, perhaps an amalgamation of many. Sometimes to keep going is but a reflection of overflowing pride, a commitment to finish a task left incomplete, a dissatisfaction with a performance practised for a lifetime. Sometimes, says Gordon, an athlete is so tuned to what must be done, that pain is no longer a factor, it does not even register.

Perhaps it was guilt that propelled her, a sense that she had let Hao down, that this was not just about herself; perhaps she simply believed she had let herself down. Perhaps she thought, heck, four years of early mornings, bruises, building belief, how can I walk away now. Perhaps she has fallen so many times and just learnt to get back up.

We see grace on the ice but it conceals a steel. And so she and Hao start to skate again, unsure first where to restart their programme, then hesitancy flows into certainty, and Dan wears a half-smile, but she makes every twisting jump, doubles, triples, landing on that leg, and even later she will not talk about the pain but no need, the imagination suffices, and it is stunning, this triumph over the self. Then it's over and they hold each other and the crowd embraces them. They win a silver medal and this warrants a pause. Even though skating allows competitors to stop their routine and restart it, an error was made. But new rules apparently state that even if skaters fail in a complex movement it counts for more than the perfect completion of a less complex movement. We should care about this, but somehow we don't. What matters to us is that a girl fell, she hurt, and then she found it in herself to stand up and skate beautifully again.