On a lazy Beijing afternoon in 2008, I slipped away with a friend to watch Akhil Kumar dance. I hadn't seen a boxer at work for a while. I'd forgotten the boxer's weave and bob, the slap of glove on slippery flesh, the primitive feeling that rises in the stomach when fighters engage. It was ten-odd minutes of carnage and conviction.
This is the essential beauty of sport. This is the only reason why the Commonwealth Games remain important to India. Not because of stadia that will fall rapidly into disrepair, or flyovers whose paint will peel, or platidudinal speeches from bloated organisers. But because of athletes and the various poetry of their crafts.
Ah television, it lies. It cannot translate spin adequately in tennis; its 24 cameras cannot convert speed in badminton. How fast Saina Nehwal moves is only an idea till you see it from close up for there are people who smash at 300 kmph in her sport.
A Games is a taking of sport across the planet, an athletic spreading of the word. But it has become confused with an excuse for nations to preen and cities to posture. Officials claim that these Games are an advertisement for India, though at Rs 35,000 crore or whatever, it comes at a vulgar cost. Nevertheless, from all the Games I have covered — Asian Games, Olympic Games, World Cups — the only monuments that remain in my memory are not buildings but performances. The Bird's Nest in Beijing was lovely, but Usain Bolt within it was unforgettable.
The privilege of these Commonwealth Games is for Indians to watch Tom Daley dive, which is the equivalent of athletic haiku, and to view New Zealand play rugby like a bunch of darting Zorros. We might argue, correctly, that India should not have hosted these Games for it treats its athletes too poorly to spend so richly on streets and stadia. But now that the Games are here, we must enjoy the aroma of intense competition, from weightlifters talking to their barbell to swimmers parading their incongruous bodies.
Games allow the vitality of sport to seep into a culture, they showcase the value of sport and play a role in the education of the sedentary Indian. One reason India tends to be sharply critical of its athletes — 'Arre, Sania's highest was No. 27! What's the big deal?' — is because many critics lack a first-hand comprehension of the complexity of modern sport.
The Games represent also a chance for host nations to respect the athletes who compete in their colours. Yet coverage in India is primarily centred on scandal and subterfuge. Suresh Kalmadi, a most unfit leader of an athletic movement, has with his cronies forged a predictable chaos and deserves public derision. But censure of officials can ride side-by-side with celebration of sportspeople. Athletes must wince: even in disgrace, officials are stealing their headlines.
This matters particularly in a nation whose worship is reserved for fellows in coloured trousers. Beyond cricket, India's romance with its athletes is intermittent, its flirtations brief. That Beijing Olympic medallist in wrestling whose mangled ears are themselves worth a look. Remember his name? The Bengali squash player at world No. 26. Know his face? The bandanna-ed table tennis fellow, No. 39 in a sport where no Indian has been inside No. 50. Heard his story?
For these Indian athletes, this is their special time. For once, they are not shooters firing in some remote range in Zagreb, not archers whose arrows sing in a distant Leipzig. This is a carnival at home, a chance to be seen, to be introduced to the people they represent, to be cheered. Else, what is home advantage? India needs to embrace its own, all of its own, not just its occasional champions. One of the truths of fan-dom is that the victorious athlete is quickly claimed by his nation — Our Hero — but the struggler is casually disowned.
There is little dignity to the Indian athletic life where officials with sub-standard imaginations direct the lives of young people. If anything, the state of these Games gives Indians an understanding into the plight of their athletes. Consider this: if officials are so uncaring in their organising of a major Games, so unembarrassed by biting editorials, what chance does an uneducated discus thrower from a Haryana village have with them?
But — and this is the beauty of it all — athletes will still strive, delay exams, have their parents empty savings for them. They will stay in camps months after months, they will rise before dawn, perhaps in the hope of having a shining moment in Delhi in front of their mothers who might only have a vague idea of what they do. It is akin to the scene from the film Mao's Last Dancer, when Li Cunxin's parents, from a mountain village in China, arrive in America to witness the balletic genius of their son.
It is these stories we need to hear at these Games; it is the valour of the competitor, the depth of his dream, the audacity of his obsession, we need to know. You see, Kalmadi will never be able to lift us; only the athlete at these Games can.
Rohit Brijnath is a sportswriter with The Straits Times, Singapore.