Debutants’ Tokyo tales: Djokovic, delight and nerves

This was an Olympics like none other; delayed by a year and held amid a pandemic and with multiple restrictions and protocols. There were no spectators and athletes’ movement was restricted between the Village or the hotel to the competition venues.
Indian fencer Bhavani Devi with Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic(Bhavani Devi / Twitter)
Indian fencer Bhavani Devi with Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic(Bhavani Devi / Twitter)
Published on Aug 21, 2021 10:41 PM IST
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By Rutvick Mehta, Mumbai

Inseparable from the sport since the age of 10, CA Bhavani Devi has been to countless fencing arenas—big, small, national, international. Yet, something about the Makuhari Messe Hall in the Chiba Prefecture stood out.

“Those rings,” Bhavani said, referring to the Olympic symbol. “Every day when I walked into that area for training, I could see only the rings, lights and the fencers. That feeling was very new, very special.”

The 27-year-old was in Tokyo for her maiden Games as the first and only Indian fencer to take part in the Olympics. For Bhavani and many other debutants among the 127-strong Indian contingent, the Olympics was a mere collection of stories till they got there. That made the 2020 Tokyo Games as much about performances and results as it was about being an experience. Of its unparalleled atmosphere, the charm of the Games Village, the buzz of athletes from all around the globe.

“A life-changing experience,” said table tennis player G Sathiyan. “Goosebumps stuff. That feeling that everyone talks about, I experienced it first hand—the excitement, the energy.”

Yet, this was an Olympics like none other; delayed by a year and held amid a pandemic and with multiple restrictions and protocols. There were no spectators and athletes’ movement was restricted between the Village or the hotel to the competition venues.

Maana Patel, the lone Indian female swimmer at the Olympics, lived the vibrant Village life for 12 days, cut off from what was happening in Tokyo. “The city looked a little dead due to the pandemic. But being in the Village itself, it hits you that, ‘OK, you’re at the Olympics where literally the entire world comes together and stays at one place’,” said Patel.

And clicks pictures with Novak Djokovic. The world No. 1 tennis player was, quite evidently, the star of the show in Tokyo. “Every time I saw Djokovic in the Village, there was a line of athletes wanting to take pictures with him. But he always smiled and posed with everyone,” said Bhavani.

She was one of them. So was Sathiyan. So was Patel. And a large chunk of the Indian contingent. “Even though I’m a Federer fan, it was my fanboy moment,” said Sathiyan. “He asked me which sport I play, and was a little surprised to have fans from table tennis as well.”

Even Ankita Raina, India’s top-ranked women’s singles tennis pro who has seen the Serb at multiple Slams before but didn’t feel the need to disturb him, couldn’t hold back. “I saw so many athletes ask him for a picture so I just couldn’t resist!” she said.

Raina, who paired with Sania Mirza for doubles, also felt a different vibe in the gym inside the Village by just watching athletes across sport do their thing. “I was in awe during my gym sessions because I saw every athlete doing different kinds of exercises and different variations to what I usually do. I felt a different kind of motivation—that I want to get even stronger and fitter,” she said.

Bhavani recalled the USA contingent setting up a makeshift gym in their apartment basement, and the Australians setting up beach chairs and a large TV in their lawn. “You could sense some teams had come to not only compete but also have a good time,” she said.

For the fencer who won her first match at the Games, the Tokyo tryst was more special because her mother travelled as an “extra official”. With her mother staying in a hotel outside the Village, Bhavani was worried about how she would travel alone to the competition venue, a 45-minute cab drive. “She had never travelled by herself anywhere before. But when I was stepped on the piste for my first match, I saw her sitting in the stands in front of me. I don't know how she did that! The Olympics was her dream too. I can never forget that moment in my life,” said Bhavani.

Like Patel can’t forget the first day she entered the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, the main competition pool. “The moment I walked in, I was like, s***, this is big,” she said. Five days before her 100m backstroke heat, the Indians were assigned training slots along with the American and Australian teams. And that meant Patel could see the likes of Ryan Murphy, Katie Ledecky and Ariarne Titmus go about their business from close quarters. “It was amazing,” she said.

But being at the Olympics for the first time can be nerve-jangling too, something Patel experienced first-hand. The 21-year-old could not progress beyond the heats, putting it down to a touch of anxiety on D-Day. “I was training well, and was hoping for a much faster time. But on my race day I got so scared and the nerves got to me. The Olympics gets so much more attention than any other event. Some of my friends who were not even interested in sports were rooting for me. It was like everyone was watching me, and that put me under pressure,” she said.

Sathiyan could also relate to that. The world No. 38 in Tokyo crashed out in the singles second round to lower-ranked Lam Siu-hang of Hong Kong playing his first match at that stage (he received a first-round bye). Although disappointed with the result, the 28-year-old returned home richer with valuable lessons and an enriching experience. “The butterflies that I had in my stomach when I wore the India jersey and stepped on the court to play my first match, it was something I had never felt before. But it was a feeling that I had waited to experience for the last 20 years,” he said.

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Saturday, October 16, 2021