Chronology is, as per norm, the way most stories are told. Staying true to the untraditional approach I’m proud of, I’ll completely disregard this norm as I tell you my Olympic story.
It might be relevant, of course, to inform you that earlier this year I was called upon by The Reporters’ Academy, who gather news stories for various Oceania TV networks and are contracted through the Oceania National Olympic Committee, to work alongside their young and talented group of journalists in their bid to cover the London 2012 Olympic Games. It sort of justifies my poor blogging schedule and I’m sure the few reading this would forgive me for my absence.
Anyway, it was with an over-excited, Red Bull-stacked and sports-loving heart that I reached London on the 21st of July to bathe in the spirits of the pinnacle of sporting excellence and the ideals that represent it: Citius, Altius, Fortius (Latin for Faster, Higher, Stronger).
It always amazed me that the most expensive tickets are bought for events that we want to see finished the quickest. Be it Usain Bolt’s 100m sprint or Michael Phelps’ quick splash, we urge the athletes to go faster than any man has ever gone before. The value-for-money concept eluded the buyers. Or so I thought.
Then a Bolt of lightning struck me. It wasn’t quite just the speed, but the spirit, the anticipation and the inspiration he was to those around the stadium that hit me. It wasn’t really the event one paid to watch, it was man’s constant struggle and fight against the barriers that separate the human abilities from physical perfection. And people like Usain Bolt seemed to redefine the “struggle” aspect of it, making it all seem almost like a joy and revelling in the exhilaration of it all.
Another athlete, one far closer to my heart, who pushed her capacities and excelled at this year’s Games and emerged out of it all with a heart-touching smile alongside her gold-medal was Jessica Ennis. The Sheffield girl’s story is one of loyalty, love, passion and commitment.
Born and raised in the beautiful South Yorkshire town she has never left the city despite various tempting and lucrative offers. She graduated from The University of Sheffield, a place I’m lucky to call mine now, she trained in Sheffield, she lives in Sheffield and she seems destined to stay grounded and rooted to this most wonderful of towns.
“Rooted” is probably a key word when describing the Heptathlon gold-medalist. I interviewed her for ITV last year as she was being honoured by her beloved home-town. As my camera-man worked to fix the tripod and fiddle with intricately technical switches on the camera, I asked Jess if I could take a pic of hers. She obliged ever so sweetly.
Something struck me about the smile as I took the snap. Her smile wasn’t just the practiced smile celebrities often switch to when thrust into the public light, it had something so refreshingly genuine and honest, something that exuded achievement and passion, love for what she was doing and love for all around her.
I could see all of that on her face as she stood at the top step of the podium, tears of joy gathering in her eyes, having beaten off the world in 7 grueling athletic events. And just as the controversial “God Save the Queen” began to play, my tear-glands began to betray me in a room full of journalists.
Going back to that interview in 2011, at the end of my round of questions which she answered with grace and simplicity, winning my heart over completely, I slid my notebook over to her and requested her for an autograph, a thing I rarely ever do. As I write this, having met people ranging from Michael Phelps to Karan Johar among others, the only two autographs that I’ve ever treasured and kept are those of Hugh Laurie, my acting idol, and Jess Ennis, my inspiration on various other levels.
I may be a journalist who is paid to remain neutral and non-starstruck on my job, but as the anthem finished playing and the crowd rose to cheer my favourite athlete, I was a fan who felt proud of my home-girl’s achievement and much as I tried to control myself, I couldn’t but stand and clap in a room full of unmoved, professional journalists.
There are times in life when what you get is wildly better than what you ever expected. The Opening Ceremony was one such wonderful occasion.
While my journalism pass only got me to the Olympic Park, the sturdy armed guards at the stadium itself wouldn’t be hoodwinked into letting me go any further. Not particularly keen on having my shirt riddled with bullets and stained with B positive blood, I settled on just ambling over to the other side of the Park and seeing how close I could get to the ceremony itself.
A short while later I found myself strangely sequestered in an area meant just for the media. This shouldn’t really surprise me given my line of work, but I almost stumbled over this. A quick glance around and I knew why I didn’t know of this place.
The journalists around me were from some major news networks from across the globe. This was fairly exclusive access. A couple of polite questions later I realised that this path was set aside for the athletes to walk in and out of the stadium for the Opening Ceremony. This was starting to get seriously cool.
A few thousand heart-beats later Greek athletes walked right past us, preparing to walk their lap of honour. They were almost as excited as, if not more than, us as they took photos of one another and tweeted via their mobile phones while making their way to the stadium, 30m away. I almost felt like a part of this buzz, seeing them as people, extraordinarily talented admittedly,rather than celebrities to be gawped at and chased after.
Such moments can sometimes be rather disappointing or disillusioning but this time, perhaps it was their humanness that made it so, but the experience felt elevating and wonderful. And this was just the beginning…
About an hour later I was in a different universe altogether. I had been steadily drifting into the line of athletes walking back from the stadium to the Athletes Village and somehow no one had noticed me. I felt a bit like Mr India (or The Invisible Man, for the non-Bollywood savvy) as I ambled, unhindered, into the otherwise well-cordoned off path.
The evening just kept getting more and more surreal from then. I whipped out my iPhone and began interviewing athletes from all countries as they walked by, beside me. A colleague of mine had followed me as well and she made her way to Lebron James and he chatted with her for a while.
That would, ordinarily, leave us awestruck enough to be incapable of movement, but this was as far from ordinary as possible. Often when you walk on the streets and spot a celebrity you go “Look, there’s Brad Pitt” or “That’s Viraat Kohli” or “That’s the totally awesome NLP-expert Sujay Jauhar” but when you’re surrounded by a dense crowd full of incredible achievers, the mind just feels madly overwhelmed.
Here I was, walking back from the Athletes’ Village, feeling like a salmon swimming headlong into a galaxy of stars, achievers at the highest levels, bathing in their afterglow. I felt tiny, insignificant. I didn’t deserve to be here amongst the hallowed elite. I scrounge around for stories that these people create and live. I report about dreams and records and inspiration while they live and breathe those words. These are our idols and what was I doing in the midst of all this?
Yet, strangely, I didn’t feel outlawed. They didn’t question my right to be there, they welcomed it. They spoke to me, gave me their flags and shared with me their stories, they waved and smiled at me as I wished them luck, they absorbed me into their midst where I wanted to remain forever lost. And as I reached back home at 4am that night I felt a high that no drug or substance could produce, not that I know about such awful things. Exhilarated, elevated, I reveled in the pure bliss of having touched the sky and waltzed with the stars.
Strength in the Games isn’t, I realised as I watched Mary Kom box gloriously, all about physical capacities. It’s more mental toughness and brain power than just super-strong muscles. That said, the muscles do help!
Another oft said maxim is “practice makes perfect” and we hear of stories of tennis players brandishing their rackets before even before their diapers came off. But other athletes have more curious stories of strength and determination. Such as Samoan Olympian Maureen Tumeleali’ifano.
When I was told I had to interview Maureen I didn’t really know what to make of it. She wasn’t a known name and I didn’t really know what to ask her.
The little I’d found out about her wasn’t very helpful. She was Samoa’s first woman archer to compete in the Games and had been knocked out in the first round of the competition, albeit with a fairly decent score. She was a 40-something and looked fairly older than her age. And that’s all I knew. Sounded dull. But a journalist’s gotta do what a journalist’s gotta do. And here I was, at St Katharine Docks holding a mike up to Maureen, asking her the regular questions. And ten minutes later I felt like the luckiest journalist in town. Here are the edited excerpts from my interview with her:
Me: First up, Maureen, congrats on making it this far. It’s a rather amazing achievement to even make it to the Games. Tell me a little about how you got this far.
Maureen: Well, I picked up the bow and arrow seven months back and it has indeed been an amazing journey since.
Me: Wait, what? You have just been training for 7 months?
Maureen: I had never even touched a bow or arrow before that. I am a branch manager at the Samoan Bank and I have two kids who are both in college now and I never thought about the Olympics or even sports. Sports doesn’t put bread on the table in the smaller Oceanic nations.
Me: So…(lost for words)…how did this Archery thing come about? (I know, not the most elegantly framed question. But I was totally wrong-footed at this point)
Maureen: (smiling) I decided to volunteer at the Archery range 7-8 months ago, to help with our nation’s Olympic preparations. I did this for a couple of hours after my bank work. The people there are very friendly and they suggested I give archery a shot, just as a hobby, since I was already here anyway. And I did. And I hit the targets. It just came very naturally.
Me: And what about your job? Did you leave that then?
Maureen: God no! I’m still a bank manager. You get paid very very little to do sport in Samoa unless you’re a rugby player. People don’t even know about archery. So it’s very difficult getting a sponsor. All our Olympians have full-time jobs that pay for their families and sustenance. I’ve just been given a month’s paid holiday so that I can compete in these Games. But I can’t stay for the Closing Ceremony, sadly enough.
Me: So how do you manage your day?
Maureen: I wake up early and put in a couple of hours of practice in the morning. Then I get ready for my bank work which starts at 9.30am. At 5.30, once I’m done, I get back for 3-4 hours of practice and that about sums up my day.
Me: What about the kids?
Maureen: Luckily they’re in college now. So they’re in New Zealand at the moment.
Me: What do they think about their mum taking part in the Olympics?
Maureen: They can’t actually believe it. They’re proud of me but they can’t understand what’s going on really. They’ve never seen me do any archery and they’ve only been away in New Zealand a year now.
Me: Getting back a little. Surely seven months isn’t enough to learn a sport, practice it, especially with your schedule, and then master it enough to be among the elite who compete in the most prestigious sporting event in the world. How did you manage it? Did you have a special coach or training regime?
Maureen: When I realised I was good, and the people around me realised that too, the real training began. But our infrastructure for archery is very poor. So much of my training was my own. I’m largely self-taught. I kept training and getting better. Then I competed in a few events where I did very well. But the Olympics weren’t even a thought. The requirement was way too high for me. Then someone arranged for me to go to China for a month before the qualifiers and train with a Chinese coach. He was very good and he corrected a few things in my style but even he didn’t think I’d make it this far. Most of the people he trains have to work for at least a decade before making it here.
Me: What else did the Chinese coach teach you? And how long were you there?
Maureen: I was there for a month and he taught me how to breathe among other things. He is very good. The only problem is the language barrier. He spoke only Mandarin and we needed an interpreter. But the coach made gestures and I understand that better than what the interpreter says. Unfortunately my coach wasn’t allowed to come to London with me and that’s been a drawback. I have to show him my style and all via Skype. It’s inconvenient.
Me: Why wasn’t he allowed to come?
Maureen: The Chinese government won’t allow any of their people to coach another country’s athlete. When I first applied they didn’t think I was any threat at all. But when I’d qualified, they clamped down on things. But they did allow him to Skype-train me. But it’s not convenient at all.
Me: Do you think you would’ve done better had he been able to come?
Maureen: I don’t know. Actually I’m happy with my performance. I’ve come a long way in a very short time. And I’m only 42. In a sport like archery, I can dream about Rio 2016 and start training for that. And with 4 years more under my belt, I’m confident it’ll only get better.
Me: So what next for Samoa’s first woman archer in the Olympics? Where do you go from here?
Maureen: I fly back on Monday and get back to the bank work the following week. My friends are very proud of me and have been very supportive, but archery makes no money as I told you. And the branch needs its manager. I can’t afford to lose the job. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to train and hopefully secure a sponsor so that I can shift to working on archery full-time. I don’t know what the future holds. I’m just happy with the present right now.
She smiled as I thanked her and we exchanged email IDs and business cards. Mine says “Broadcast Journalist” having just started out in the profession. Hers says “Bank Manager” having just participated as an “Archer” in the biggest sporting event there is. That said I’ve been a journalist longer than she’s been an archer. It didn’t fit at all.
Her smiling, plain, ageing face hid behind it a story of incredible determination and strength. She looks like a simple mother-of-two who I would’ve placed as a house-wife at first glance. She doesn’t adorn herself with the (justifiable) air of pride and glory. She has a certain dignity that is rare to find. And with that dignity, there is strength. Incredible strength.
I was 13 when I’d learnt that the Olympic motto was Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger) having watched an episode of Harsha Bhogle’s Sports Quiz on ESPN. Ten years later, five thousand miles away, I understood just what it truly meant. Even though the London 2012 Olympic Games are officially over, true to it’s legacy, to Inspire A Generation, it has lit the golden triangular torch within me. And this one’s never getting blown out.
- London 2012 Olympics: Jessica Ennis’s post-gold plans…’relax, eat lots of rubbish food and have a few glasses of wine’ (standard.co.uk)