Athletes on the outskirts of fame
Last Sunday was yet another super Sunday for sport. India got its latest world champion in PV Sindhu who finally came won the World Badminton Championships after agonisingly coming second best in the previous two editions. Then Ben Stokes single-handedly pulled off a miraculous victory to keep the English in contention for the Ashes. Finally, in less dramatic fashion but yet very meaningful, the Indian fast bowlers demolished the West Indies batting line up through sheer pace as if the world had come a full circle from the times that Caribbean pacers terrorised the cricketing world from the 60’s to the 90’s. All stories of glory and will surely be remembered years down the line. However, this piece by Rohit Brijnath is about those sportspersons who will be forgotten but have also attained glory in their own right. Right after super Sunday, a young Indian – Sumit Nagal was playing his first Grand Slam at the US Open, taking on Roger Federer in the first round. He managed to grab a set and an encouraging comment from the legend “….(Sumit) has a solid future”. Whether Nagal goes on to achieve greater feats or not, Brijnath’s piece is an ode to all those sportspersons who have contributed to sport without getting the same adulation as the stars yet have done so for the sheer love of sport.
“….we were talking about the forgotten, the unheralded athletes who fill the lanes and the ranking tables, the luckless and the dreamers, the so-close and the will-be, all mainly housed on the outskirts of fame.
Like Benjamin Pietri, 23, ranked No.1,079 on the ATP Tour, earnings $2,904 (around ₹2.07 lakh) this year, no picture available as if he’s faceless, accompanied by the words: “Unfortunately, we do not currently have any bio information for this player.”
Some athletes are forever almost-theres. But many do get there, to a place precious to them, to a first round in a Grand Slam, into a Ranji Trophy team, into an Olympics, earning a single national cap. Places that watchers tend to dismiss, places that people are snobbish about—“kitna Test khela?” (How many Test matches has he played?) is Indian sport’s most unpleasant phrase—but places that are so hard to get to.
…..And these athletes, on the margins looking in, whom you see walking behind the champion who is being interviewed on camera, whom no one stops for a selfie, are in fact the best interviewees, because they are shorn of ego, because they have a story and no one’s ever asked it.
And it’s an education to hang out with them, at practice, around changing rooms. One of the many reasons I admire journalist Sharda Ugra’s work is because she spent so much time just listening to Ranji Trophy players, spending long days in a time before mobile phones, understanding through them the viscera of sport, the small triumphs, the dusty dreams, the workings of the game.
Who sustains sport? In this over-worshipping time, we would say Serena Williams, Lionel Messi, Virat Kohli. But, really, it’s these people, the ones who contest the heats, who want one chance to play Federer, who share rooms on tour and load up on free breakfasts, who never ride on private jets but still don’t quit, who might be the pride of their small town because no one from there ever went so far, who, well, love sport even if it doesn’t always love them back.
Last year at the Asian Games, I wrote about Aishath Sausan, a cheerful mother from the Maldives who came last in the 200m backstroke but set a new national record. I emailed her this week and she, 31, told me she still trains in an ocean pool in the Maldives where eels appear, and sometimes garbage, because all she wants, just one time, is to get to the Olympics.
She told me she had been swimming since she was 9 and in a life of studies, marriage, two children and a five-year break, had never got to a Games. “So,” she wrote about the Tokyo Olympics next year, “(I’m) really, really hoping that I could achieve my biggest dream this time.” Even in the flat, unfeeling typeface of an email you can feel her desperation.
This August, Sausan went to the World Championships and finished 44th out of 48 competitors in the 50m backstroke, but she set another national record. An irrelevant statistic to you, but everything to her. When it mattered, she had found her best.”