Darwin at the Olympics

Mary Kom - Boxing, India
Five-time world boxing champion and India’s most successful female athlete Mary Kom and has been rated the 38th most marketable athlete in the world by leading magazine SportsPro.

The year 1896 was special. On January 5, an Austrian newspaper reported that a certain Wilhelm Röntgen had discovered a new kind of radiation, which we would later know as X-ray. It was also the year that saw the first modern Olympic Games.

Just 14 nations participated in Olympics' ancient home, Athens. An industrialist helped raise a major part of the Games budget of US $448,400 - around $12 million today.

(Some things don't change. Greece was bankrupt even then. In December 1893, a glum Greek prime minister stood up in parliament to announce: "Regretfully, we are bankrupt.")

In 2012 - another leap year - Higgs Boson, and not X-ray, is the conversation in offices, pubs and cafés. And the 205-nation Olympic Games this year are costing host London more than $14 billion.

Is the world's greatest sporting spectacle just hype? Have the Olympic Games truly made humans 'faster, higher, stronger'?

To find some answers, we must bring out the browning, brittle-paged record books from 116 years ago.

In the 1896 Athens Olympics, US sprinter Tom Burke streaked across 100 metres in a then impressive 12 seconds to win the gold medal.

In Beijing 2008, Jamaican Usain Bolt ran the distance in 9.69 seconds. If Burke were to run that race with Bolt, the wildly cheering crowd of 1896 would surely have been less delighted. He would finish about 20 metres behind Bolt. That is approximately the length of an Indian railway coach, or the width of a six-lane national highway.

In Athens 1896, Ellery Clark of the US won the gold in men's high jump with a leap of 1.81 metres. In Beijing 2008, Russia's Andrey Silnov cleared a height of 2.36 metres to win gold.

While Clark could aim to get on one of those lithe, high racehorses with that leap, Silnov can land himself on the back of a mid-size Asian elephant.

One may argue that American Dick Fosbury threw in the gamechanger 'Fosbury Flop' along the way, winning the 1968 Olympic gold with his revolutionary technique. But it only strengthens the point that our species have resorted to radical innovation whenever pure physical effort failed to push the envelope enough.

In Athens 1896, Viggo Jensen of Denmark won the weightlifting gold with a two-handed, 111.5-kg lift.

In Beijing 2008, German weightlifter Matthias Steiner held 258 kg of iron aloft in a clean jerk, and won with a total of 461 kg.

While Jensen would have struggled to lift an unsuspecting Steiner who weighs 140 kg, Steiner earns his stripes lifting weights comparable to a Harley Davidson bike, which are nearly twice as heavy as him.

A sport called evolution
These are pretty serious leaps in evolution when one considers the fact that it took hominids thousands of years, if not millions, to come down from the trees and walk the grasslands on two feet, or fashion stone with stone into almond-shaped spears.

An event like the Olympics packs immense amount of human effort, over small periods, into certain activities. It creates a kind of energy maelstrom.

In Haruki Murakami's Kafka On The Shore, the boy named Crow tells the protagonist Kafka Tamura: "When you come out of the storm you won't be the same person who walked in. That's what this storm's all about."

That is possibly also how Olympics change participants, and beneath the roar of cheers and jeers quietly readjust the audience to newer frontiers of the excellence.

We will watch Michael Phelps cut like a torpedo through the pool, little realising what it took for a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder to grow up and beat the world's best again and again.

We will scream the sky down if Mary Kom wins the boxing gold for India, but won't really know what spurs the struggling mother of two to tear through the most alert defences unerringly, striking like a viper.

Nations like China go to the last drop of human endeavour to win an Olympic gold. Nine-year-olds run 20 miles a day, lakhs of coaches get trained overseas, and millions are spent on each winning athlete.

Olympics are where the best are in a single-minded, obsessive zone to give their best. Months and years of that kind of profound effort may or may not bear medals, but it does push frontiers of excellence a little further.

Today's Bolt was faster than yesterday's Carl Lewis. But only tomorrow will tell who draws the next fire-line.


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