Tokyo 2020: My Favourite Long-Running Olympic Games Story
My child was two when we watched Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom, then 29, box her way to a bronze medal at the London Olympics in 2012. C’mon India, she shouted every time Kom threw a speedy punch or Saina Nehwal leaped to smash her opponent on the badminton court. The toddler patriotism was also her first lesson in intersectional feminism as she cheered for her heroes Sania, Saina, Mary, Geeta, and Jwala.
In the Rio de Janeiro Olympics four years later, when India won two medals, my then six-year-old Babyjaan received real-life confirmation of an often repeated mantra in our home: girls are stronger than boys.
Our sole medal winners, wrestler Sakshi Malik and fierce badminton prodigy PV Sindhu, were both women. Babyjaan learned that Malik is from Haryana, arguably ground zero of girl hell in this country. She grew up training with boys and was often told wrestling was not for girls.
The lesson? Even women born in India’s scariest pincodes can do anything.
By 2016, Babyjaan had learned to appreciate the tears of winners and the brave smiles of those who went home without a medal. She understood that the joy of sport and sportsmanship transcend the geography of home.
All nations merged at the poetry of Michael Phelps’ strokes and yet cheered when 21-year-old Singaporean Joseph Schooling beat his hero to win the 100m butterfly. Magical teenager Simone Biles (the 4’8’’ American gymnast who was placed in foster care and adopted at five) who won four gold medals was a universal favourite. Who could resist Usain Bolt turning to smile for the cameras as he casually qualified for the 100m final?; or Ethiopian Almaz Ayana’s record smasher 10,000 m run and the mysterious power of long-distance runner Mo Farah. Who dare not cheer when Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson became the ‘Fastest Woman in the World’?
Introducing my daughter to live sport has been one of my biggest parenting joys. For the 17 days of the Tokyo Games, I know I can get her to do anything I want simply by holding out the promise that she can wake up at the crack of dawn to catch a couple of hours of Olympic action before school.
In this period, billions of viewers will be connected by a shared love – no mean feat in a world racked by hate and divisiveness.
My child has come a long way from the time when the accompanying snacks were as important as the sport we were watching and when she would excitedly yell in her baby voice, “She’s been illuminated” every time an athlete was eliminated. Now she’s a serious participant, full of questions about the rules of the sport and the backstories of athletes. She gets easily irritated when I get up to do chores or pick up my cellphone and, according to her, invariably miss a key moment of the action.
At 11, this is Babyjaan’s third Olympic Games. Held in the middle of the pandemic and at a time when my intensely athletic daughter has been trapped at home without playing any sport for over a year, at first these Games felt extremely weird. They were declared open in an eerily empty stadium as tennis champ Naomi Osaka lit the Olympic cauldron and citizens protested outside. In one poll, 87% of Japanese expressed concern about their country hosting the Olympics in the time of Covid-19.
But then the stories began flowing in.
On day one Saikhom Mirabai Chanu showcased the power of marginalised Indian women. Kom, now 38 and 15 years older than her Dominican Republic opponent, made it through the first round. As the referee raised her hand in victory, we were transported back to 2012.
Table tennis player Manika Batra clawed back early losses to move into the next round—and won that too. Indian shooters had a big upset. Gymnast Sunisa Lee, 19, shone at least as bright as Biles. Skateboarding was a new Olympic sport and it had two 13-year-old winners! Russia was rechristened ROC. Katie Ledecky saw victory and defeat. Team USA had all my daughter’s favourite soccer stars: Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Rose Lavelle and Megan Rapinoe. By day three, we were hooked.
Babyjaan’s sports journalist godfather, who is at the Games, sends a steady stream of news from Tokyo. Every time he messages, she has only one question: “Mama, why didn't you become a sports journalist?”
“Did you see Kohei Uchimura?” our friend texted. Japan’s top athlete King Kohei’s hand slipped during qualifications on the horizontal bar. “I never failed like this in practice, and I can’t figure out why it happened,” The New York Times quoted Uchimura as saying. “I’ve also been successful at the Olympics throughout my whole career. I’ve never experienced failure like this.” There’s a new lesson in sport every day for Babyjaan.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.