On the 5th of August 2021, NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour aired a podcast with the imaginative title, “Enjoying? The Tokyo Olympics On Your Own Terms”. The podcast more than lived up to its provocative caption. Hosted by Linda Holmes, and Stephen Thompson, the programme also featured Daisy Rosario, executive producer at Stitcher with the show “Celebrity Book Club With Chelsea Devantez.” Humorous, introspective and candid, “Enjoying” raised a plethora of relevant dilemmas and inevitabilities surrounding Tokyo 2020. The Olympics this time around were held amidst circumstances, that were mildly stating, bizarre. Tokyo 2020 represented an event that just ended in August 2021. Even as the athletes were swimming, riding, jumping, hurling, swirling, catapulting, shooting and hurdling, ICUs in medical facilities spanning continents were creaking at the seams. Vaccine inequality meant a luxury to choose from a clutch of vaccines for some, but the inevitable death for others. The World Health Organisation, The Centre for Disease Control and prevention and other innumerable ombudsman organisations gave a bleak impression of paying paeans to the Random Walk Theory with their on-off, optimistic-pessimistic guidelines on masks and social distancing. In such a dystopian setting, the Olympics themselves seemed to be a Panglossian escapism occurring in an alternative or parallel universe. Seventeen straight days plucked right out an Erwin Schrodinger playbook.
The games themselves began on a cautious if not inauspicious note. As Linda Holmes, the sprightly host of the podcast educated her listeners, “USA sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was forced to withdraw before the Olympics even started after testing positive for marijuana…. Paralympic swimmer Becca Meyers, who won three gold medals in Rio five years ago, withdrew after being denied the opportunity under COVID protocols to bring her mother to assist her in navigating the games as a deaf, blind athlete. And three members of the U.S. fencing team wore pink masks to protest the presence of a teammate who has been accused of sexual misconduct and who successfully appealed his suspension.”
The Becca Meyers story raises pertinent questions, answers to which might cause a profound degree of embarrassment. While there have been many athletes whose fathers have been furnished tickets to Tokyo on account of either working with or training their offspring, the relegation of Meyers’ mother by citing COVID protocols more than just raises eyebrows and rankles sentiments. However, the fact that Aditi Ashok – the number 200 ranked golfer from India who created an absolute sensation in the games by giving her more illustrious peers a fatiguing and absolute run for their money, before falling away from the playoffs for a bronze by just one cruel shot – had her mother for a caddie, makes the whole mum and dad conundrum, as confounding as it can possibly get.
Adding to the desolate sense of perception, was the absolute absence of crowds. It was disconcertingly eerie to watch the talented athletes pull off unimaginable feats of human endeavour under the inanimate and dour gaze of empty multi-coloured chairs arranged in meticulous order. The silence in every ground, indoor stadium and azure swimming pool resounded and reverberated with the sorry story of our contemporaneous time. However, even with only their coaching staff and fellow team mates to egg them on, the valiant sportsmen and sportswomen went about their work, undaunted. This indefatigable spirit produced moments of pristine joy!
Quoting Stephen Thompson, on the podcast, “Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy and Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar, when they tied in the high jump and just decided instead of having a jump-off that they would just each get a gold medal. And then they’re just running around, hugging each other and crying and celebrating and whooping, and I thought, gosh”.
This was undoubtedly the pinnacle of the Games. A gesture that was emblematic of everything that represented humanity. A stirring testimony, at the grandest stage of them all, to selflessness, sacrifice, and brotherhood. The conflict stemming from watching the games under singularly discomfiting circumstances, to a great extent was nullified by performances such as the ones contrived by Tamberi and Essa. Similarly there was not a single dry eye in a nation populated by 1.4 billion individuals as a twenty three year old army man hurled his javelin through the rarified atmosphere over a distance of 87.58 meters to secure India’s first ever individual athletics gold in the history of the Olympics. Neeraj Chopra has given his country a brief respite. A respite filled with hope, harmony and happiness.
However the best bit of the podcast was when it came to the hosts and the guest, along with the producer of the show, Mallory Yu, describe their experience of watching sports that seemed alien to their eyes and where the going’s on were being described by foreign commentators whose expostulations and exclamations only added to the confusion, and fun!
Holmes again: “My favorite moment in Olympic commentary was the guy who at the beginning of a taped piece – this was not spontaneous commentary – he said at the Olympics, there are the people we will always remember, and there are the people we can never forget. I was like…” I guffawed like a mad man for quite some time after this particular comment by Holmes. But the best was yet to come, and it was reserved for Stephen Thompson. “I have found that that is often the case in just about any judged event. When it is a panel of judges trying to sort out who is best, I really need somebody to walk me through ’cause I will have the experience – particularly watching things like synchronized diving, I’m watching at home, and I go, holy crap, that’s amazing. And then the announcers just go, oh, that’s just a crushingly disappointing result. And there’s no explanation for, like, OK, they were supposed to twist three times. I just watched two identical people do the identical thing at an identical time.”
I could relate to this personally. While trying hard not to chew my nails and bite my fingers off as Aditi Ashok was walking the tightrope in trying to bag a play off for the bronze, a supremely confident Hindi commentator regaled his viewers not only about the importance of notching up a birdie, but also on the obstacles that a golfer could be expected to face in the process. “All these holes are naughty”, he waxed eloquent.
Before I could realise it, it was twenty minutes on the clock and the riveting podcast had come to an end. Undoubtedly it was too short and left me craving for more. Exactly like Tokyo 2020, which even though began tentatively, climaxed to a triumphant finish. Leaving billions across the world unsatisfied and demanding more.
But its now time for the Paralympics and this time, NPR we need Holmes, Yu, Thompson and Rosario for at least an hour!