Shuttler Pusarla Venkata Sindhu stood tall in her defeat and stole the show from gold medalist Carolina Marin from Spain on Friday evening as the stadium cheered for the first woman ever to win silver for India.
In doing that, she turned badminton into a spectator sport that people watched in their homes, hotels, laptops, tablets and mobile phones with the same undivided attention they give to an India-Pakistan final in the Cricket World Cup.
All televisions were tuned to the action from Rio on Friday night, with people who had never watched badminton whooping with joy each time Marin lost a point to Sindhu in the nail-biting final.
The euphoria of winning gold has no parallel, but what India’s gutsy girls – Sindhu and Sakshi Malik, who won a wrestling bronze — did was give 1.3 billion struggling with disappointment of being excluded from the medal tally a reason to rejoice.
Bonding beyond borders
Watching sports is the world’s biggest and most spectacular team sport, which turns strangers into friends or foes within seconds of celebratory wins or perceived slights both on and off the court, ring or field.
How does sport spark such vociferous camaraderie in people? Why do we spend hours with strangers cheering strangers we don’t know and will probably never meet? Most people riveted to the television to watch Sindhu and Sakshi at play did not know their names before the two became medal contenders at Rio.
Of course, it’s about nationalism and identity. Supporting our nation’s flag gives us group identity and increases bonding and self-esteem, making us regard the player as our representative on world stage. Their wins become our wins, their tears our tears and their embarrassments and humiliations our very own soul-cleaving moments. We laugh with them, we weep with them.
And when you’re cheering for your country, the court becomes the battleground where your nation’s pride -- along with it your social, cultural and ethnic identity -- is at stake. The team becomes the symbol of the nation, making identification stronger.
It reinforces social and national identity and provides viewers with a sense of belonging, identification and inclusion within a larger group with the same loyalties and interests.
It also gives people a chance to physically interact – versus social networking -- with other supporters as they gather together before shared television sets, in the stadium or in small social groups over coffee and cigarettes.
Waving the national flag, wearing team colours, cheering and chanting with others is immensely cathartic. It helps people release intense emotions -- both frustration and happiness -- in a socially acceptable form. Sport makes public display of emotion acceptable. It makes it all right to publically laugh hysterically or weep like child who’s broken his favourite toy.
The emotional outpouring also helps lower pent-up stress and strengthens the ability to cope. Sport provides an escape from daily stress by offering viewers the thrill of an unpredictable outcome within the comfort of rules. “It’s like going to war without the bloodshed and decapitation,” said Dr Samir Parikh, director, mental health and behavioural sciences, Fortis Healthcare.
The collective grief from disappointments and defeats makes viewers resilient. Viewers travel through the classic four stages of loss or grief together. It begins with denial (‘no, no, the referee made a wrong call’), anger (‘why was she fumbling so much?’), depression (‘we never win anything’), and acceptance (‘she did her best, we’ll do better next time’).
Most sport-related depression is short-lived and doesn’t last for more than a day and almost always ends in optimism. “If Sakshi can win silver, we can go for a badminton gold in Tokyo 2020,” becomes the refrain.
Let it out
Supporting our boys and girls through thick and thin is not just a commitment to the team but also to other fans, irrespective of who’s playing or whether they win or lose, you support your colours. The collective emotional outpouring to wins and defeats lends social support and reminds you that you are not alone in your loss. It helps you process disappointments even outside the stadia.
It teaches us that like in life, we have no control on the outcome of the game, and teaches us that we cannot allow frustrations and disappointments to control how we feel.
So the lesson from Rio for all of us is to be like beaming Sindhu on the dais -- you do your best and move on. Tomorrow is another day.