There has never been a Saturday like this. Because there’s never been an Olympics like this. In about seven hours, Indian sports fans have had their emotions tossed around like they do leafy vegetables in those pointless plastic salad spinners. By noon, we’re drained. We’re slightly light-headed but also heavy-hearted. We’re rejoicing and relieved but some parts of our minds also contain crestfallen corners.
In the moment, no one is talking Covid/pandemic or virus. A cruel alarm clock yanks us out of bed, scrambling, turning on screens, computers, televisions and diving into a world of names, numbers, countries and scores. Tokyo being three-and-a-half hours ahead, by the time we’re even half awake, our world seems to be ending in one corner of the Olympics while beginning in another.
India at Tokyo: Key dates | Athletes | Top storylines | News & features | Medal prospects
The women’s 10m air rifle qualification list has Elavenil Valarivan and Apurvi Chandela far too many scrolls down the phone. Doom. Hell and damnation. Pressure in the Olympics is when the bacon gets dunked on to the pan at top heat. You either sizzle or you burn. The Indian shooting team has never been this big at a Games, never had so many super successful contenders. To open their Games without a finalist in their first event wrenches us away from hopeful anticipation and dunks our heads in cold water. Now we’re properly awake.
Once the competition began, nobody even noticed that the Olympics were being played out to empty arenas. Who didn’t feel like they were in Tokyo and its surrounds? Squinting in the late morning light of the hockey and archery fields?
Meanwhile, the mixed archery pair of Deepika Kumari and Pravin Jadhav are in one corner, down a set against Chinese Taipei and the men’s hockey team have conceded a PC to New Zealand.
There is no time to breathe, curse or even gnash teeth because the morning is going past on rocket speed. In the mad-house that is the ESPN India “office”, via chat messages, social media and emails, there appear to be at least 20 Indians in action. Okay, the hockey team plus then the shooters, archers, rowers, badminton players, the singular tennis player and judoka, and then of course the weightlifter. The weightlifter.
This high-speed Saturday is unusual and hopefully, a sign of a future where India’s competitive options at the Olympic will rise from the meagre handfuls at the turn of the millennium to more, many more with every Games. Contenders. Competitors. Believers.
Now the rowers have been blown away in the double sculls. But before we can even bring Dattu Bhokanal to mind, Jadhav is nailing his tens like he has grown up near the Yumenoshima Park archery field. Deepika is composed as the team edges out the Taiwanese team winning their round after trailing. Once again, Indian archers are over their first hurdle and two rounds away from a chance at medals. We will know soon enough because their next match is a biggie against the monster Koreans but for the moment, we can exhale.
The hockey team turned their game around, nailing in two penalty corners so perfectly that… maybe Gareth Southgate… alright stop, no need to get cocky, there’s Australia next. Fortunately, I’m not doing a live blog today or white coats and straitjackets would be needed. But honestly, did not Sreejesh just turn six feet taller and six inches broader? Or did they change the size of the goal?
Ping. Sharath Kamal and Manika Batra have got bumped off the mixed doubles TT quite emphatically. Pong.
A few hours in, this mad rush has become addictive and all you’re looking for – on the official Olympic app or the livestream or TV – is for an Indian somewhere to be doing something. Then everyone is calmed, suddenly Mr Money In the Bank is on fire.
Teenage pistol shooter Saurabh Chaudhary has topped his qualification like he’s competing at his home range in Haryana. He is the only one who shot ten tens/ 100 in qualification. Money in the Bank, Medal on the Tally.
At one point we dream of two Indians in that final – Abhishek Verma’s surge up the ladder leads to shouts of encouragement at screens. Then world No.1 Verma’s second last qualification shot ends up as an eight and sends him away for four more years. Or three. If he can bear to. How do they keep doing it?
Okay, the Koreans have blown Deepika and Jadhav away; Jadhav’s tens have melted into a six and you want to cry.
What’s worse, our hearts get an Olympic working over, shown their place and taught a lesson. A lesson that MoneyInTheBank means zero at an Olympics. An awesome qualification can melt into meaninglessness. That men’s 10m pistol final is over and done for Saurabh – and thousands watching – in the matter of ten minutes, leaving him fighting elimination.
The Games can take confidence and form and reputation and crush it like a biscuit. Not Saurabh’s because he will deal with this brutal awakening as he knows best, but ours. The hopeful, the delusional, the we-have-seen-so-much-we-know-how-this-works. This is the first time Saurabh has looked this giant in the eye. He will not forget. We have seen it before and still we keep forgetting. Damn.
“This high-speed Saturday is unusual and hopefully, a sign of a future where India’s competitive options at the Olympic will rise from the meagre handfuls at the turn of the millennium to more, many more with every Games”
Wait there’s more in this breakneck morning and its whirlwind of heartbreak and hope. Sumit Nagal was serving out the match against the immortal Denis Istomin before he got pushed into a third but has hung there by his fingernails. Badminton doubles pair Chirag Shetty-Satwiksairaj Rankireddy beat the world o.3 team after coming back from 16-19 down.
Then comes Mirabai. The first sight of her – the neatly-piled up hair, scarlet scrunchie and Olympic earrings – walking up easily, relaxed, conveys a controlled sass. Onto the platform with a sharp cry of encouragement to herself.
Then she picks up the total weight of a Bullet motorcycle, plus spares, over her head and send everyone halfway to Rio. Easy peasy. Day one. That’s how it’s done. Don’t you get it? That’s what this morning was about.
The rest of the contingent has been now told it’s up to them. Boys, girls, ladies, gentlemen, bachche log, let’s go.