August 12, 2008

Life Without Bob Costas

I’m an Olympics junkie. I get all misty-eyed when countries like Djibouti walk their two or three athletes out during the Opening Ceremony, and I’ll cheer for any athlete of any sport that’s on TV, even if it’s speed-walking. I’m especially a sucker for the underdog—I’ll just shrug if Michael Phelps wins his eight golds, but I’ll probably do a little victory dance if, say, Kyrgyzstan stages an upset in handball. So I may be enjoying the Olympics more than ever before here in India, which is arguably the biggest underdog in the world. It may have a sixth of the world’s population, but Indians readily admit that they’re not the sportiest people, nor does the country have the funding to train its athletes. There are only 56 Indian Olympians in Beijing, and the country’s not competing in a single team sport. Its national sport, cricket, isn’t in the Olympics, and though it once boasted a medal-winning field hockey team back in the 1970s, this year’s team didn’t even pass the preliminaries.

Yet despite the country’s low profile, the Indian media is Olympics-crazy. TV channels have repeated India’s entrance into the stadium at the Opening Ceremony over and over, and one newspaper printed a huge blow-up photo and labeled each team member. Every single athlete’s performance is monitored by the press, no matter what their odds of a medal is. Monday was a particularly depressing day: “Indian archer off the mark”… “Indian judoka disappoints” … “Indian swimmer finishes last”…

So when on Tuesday an Indian rifleman shot his way to a gold medal, the entire country exploded. This is India’s first-ever individual Olympic gold, and it seems like all one million people here are celebrating. The national newspaper not only devoted their entire front page to the champion, but filled a full three more pages with additional coverage (e.g., interviews with his parents, coaches, the Prime Minister, and probably his dentist). His mug is on every single TV channel, under headlines like “Believe in India.” The paper claims, “No individual gold has mattered so much to so many people in the history of the Olympics.” As for the medallist himself, he’s a bespectacled little guy who quietly explains to cameras that shooting is a very unpredictable sport, and he could have just as easily finished 10th or 20th. I’d imagine he’s a little overwhelmed by the fact that he just went from a nobody to a national icon.

Abhinav Bindra, overnight hero

Gold medal winner Abhinav Bindra of India on the podium following men's 10m air rifle shooting finals, 11 Aug 2008

Sure, there’s something a little laughable about all this. I mean, before now, who cared about the sport of shooting? Now newspapers are filling space by analyzing Abhinav Bindra’s technique or detailing his career history. Whether one dude’s ace shooting can really symbolize a whole country’s athleticism is definitely debatable. But for me, partying with the rest of India about their new Olympic status is way more fun than rooting America’s pampered swimmers and gymnasts on to their expected glory. An added perk is that Bindra is from Chandigarh, the town I’m living in, so when I go to the town’s Independence Day parade this Friday, I have a hunch it will turn into a big Abhinav Bindra pep rally. I can’t wait.

1 comment:

Deepa said...

Shooting is a crime, not a sport.

Just kidding - go India! Is there any excitement over Indian-American bronze medal gymnast Raj Bhavsar? Because the rest of the diaspora is all about it/him.