Saturday, August 4, 2012

As I Watch The Olympics

These are just a few thoughts that come to my mind as I watch the ongoing Olympic games.

The gymnastics is just over and I have not found a replay of the finals on youtube, I suppose these videos will put be up later.  Though I have never been able to tumble and toss myself in the air, I like to watch this event to see how the gymnasts deal with making swift, drastic movements.  I couldn't help comparing this to yoga, though, of course, there are fundamental differences.  All movements in yoga are slow and steady and the final positions are held for some time; a perfect posture is defined as one of comfort and stability.  However, there are other principles which would be of use to gymnasts ( and which are probably taught to them).

One important aspect is the emphasis on relaxing the body completely and leaving the mind empty.  This is hard enough to practice in a quiet room and would be almost impossible to achieve in a competitive arena.  ( In the case of yoga, however, the emphasis is never on achieving a particular goal but on continuously striving towards it and finding one's one equilibrium).

While watching the women's artistic gymnastic qualifiers, I couldn't help noticing the body language of the participants and the coaches, which varied noticeably between countries (and continents).  This being the Olympics, it was natural for the gymnasts to constantly check their individual scores in each event, but I think that this might be something best left to the coaches to keep track of and worry about.  There was quite some tension involved during these breaks, the physical part evident in the form of the clenching of fists, tightening of muscles (especially the facial muscles) etc.  These games are as much a contest of the mind as of the body, and I think it would help to try and keep one's natural rhythm going as much as possible instead of having it broken up by a lot of extraneous interruptions.  Of course, this is easier said than done and I'm sure the gymnasts know (better than me) what they are doing!  But sometimes, political and social pressures tend to dominate.

This is an aspect that perhaps every yoga student eventually comes to confront as well and one of the solutions offered is to remember that you are the ultimate witness.  Eventually (or at some level) there is no one who knows better than you your internal state and the direction you need to take.  In physical terms this means being transparent to or just "blanking out" external (and sometimes, internal) noises and letting your body move without preconceived notions.  After watching all the recent qualifiers, I went back to see Nadia Comaneci's 1976 performance, when the Romanian took Russia by surprise.  Nadia's performance is full of poise and she seems to move effortlessly, in tune to an inner natural rhythm that is rarely seen (of course, perhaps times are more competitive and technical these days).  I am attaching a small recording of hers that appears to be part of a featured video for the London games.

Moving on, the track and field events have begun and it's always amazing how the long distance running and steeplechase events are dominated by east Africa.  We saw some of the champion marathon runners in Bangalore a couple of years ago.  They had flown in for the Bangalore marathon and we happened to be dining in the restaurant that they were at, the night before the race.  They all looked so skinny and were tucking into large amounts of noodles, white bread and chicken.  A ghastly dinner but one that worked well, for they breezed through the run the following day!  It's always nice to watch them and their exciting finishes as they seem to fly over the track at the end.

The main difference between these athletes and their competitors is that some of the top runners comfortably start out towards the end of the line, where it is uncrowded.  They slowly work their way to the beginning, putting in a burst of sustainable speed just at the last round.  They seem to have the confidence that comes of knowing their ability and speed, of being sure they will be able to cover any gap that arises.  This was never more evident than in the first round of the men's 3000 m steeplechase held yesterday.  Ezekiel Kemboi (of Kenya) worked his way up from the very end to come second, almost relaxing and allowing (it seemed) Roba Gari (of Ethiopia) to finish first.  They will meet again in the finals!  The Kenyans have dominated this event for the past seven Olympic games.  Yesterday, Tirunesh Dibaba (of Ethiopia) won the women's 10,000 m final, by a long margin.  She is the first woman to win two consecutive golds in this event.  She has not been competitively running for the whole of last year and is not at her best currently.

On the home front, India is doing all right I think (though coming in for a lot of criticism, as always).  To win a large number of medals, one needs a critical mass of talent -something India has not been able to gather so far.  Though we are a country of many millions, a very tiny number have access to good sports training.  We are also not a sports oriented nation; cricket seems to be the game of choice, where most of the team members stand around for long periods not doing much (perhaps I am a trifle harsh here)!

Archery (and to an extent) shooting are tricky events, driven by local conditions and experience and though we have lost in archery, we have done well in shooting.

Saina Nehwal, the badminton champion has lost to the first seed, Chinese Wang Yihan, in the semi-finals.  Saina is a strong and consistent player and perhaps the biggest compliment to her is the fact that the Chinese team was apparently selected primarily based on their ranking against her as she was their main rival in the sport.

The Indian boxers are falling out one by one, but Vijender Singh, competing in his third Olympic games, has managed to enter the quarter finals after a close match against American Terrell Gausha.

As for hockey - the team has lived up to its unpredictability.  Both the coach and the spectators watch in amazement (and dismay) - what is the men's team doing on the field - and why???  Yoga has no easy answers to this!

As the games roll on, I don't dwell too much on the winners and losers, often (but not always!) there is very little to choose from among the top two or three.  It's nice just to be able to watch the result of so much talent and training coming together during these few days.

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