The Olympics is the high-water mark of a track and field athlete’s career. It offers everything - a grand stage, stadiums packed to the rafters and elite opposition. You know that the world is watching, and the pressure to deliver is unimaginable.
The Games are special, for more reasons than one.
Performing at the Olympics is the ultimate dream that fuels an athlete’s journey. And on that journey, the psychological side is as important as any other. Millimeters or microseconds can be the difference between ecstasy and agony, and you need to maintain your equanimity at the vital moments to optimize your performance.
The work that goes into preparing for the big stage is both exhausting and exhilarating. And it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the 3-4 month period of training and competition before the Games can make or break your Olympics.
At the same time, keeping your focus in the big moments plays a huge role at the Olympics, just like at other top events. That focus isn’t developed overnight; preparation for the Games involves many years of single-minded devotion.
There are several distractions that await you on the way, even during performance. And those distractions can cause frustration to creep in, leading to a loss of momentum during the arduous preparatory stage.
But we need to find a way to steer clear of the speed bumps, simply because the nation’s expectations are pinned on us.
Timing is everything
Needless to say, it is essential for an athlete to peak at the Olympics. No matter how well-prepared you may be, performing at your highest level when it really matters makes all the difference.
The role of a coach in preparing an athlete for big competitions cannot be overstated. When it comes to contributors to success at the elite level, coaching is second only to talent. It’s the duty of a coach to prepare the athlete both mentally and physically for the Olympics.
Training is only half the job though. The experience of competitions and the lessons gleaned from them comprise the other half.
For the 2004 Athens Olympics, we (me and my husband Robert Bobby George, who coached me) planned everything well in advance. I started training in December and began participating in international competitions by May.
At the Doha Super Grand Prix, I delivered my best jump of 6.82m. I did reasonably well in the other competitions as well; in the United States, I improved to 6.83m.
At Athens, I was ready to deliver a seven-plus jump. After all, I was regularly hitting that mark in every training session.
Human after all…
I was confident of doing something in the region of 7.20m to 7.25m. A medal was within my grasp, and the whole country was egging me on.
The qualification round went to plan. But unfortunately, just before the final, I was struck by a fever due to my dust allergy.
The doctors took a long time to get me fit for the finals. I was in the treatment room the entire night, and I developed other discomforts too in that period.
It goes without saying that I was not fully prepared when I entered the stadium for the finals. Even though I did my best in the first jump, my brain refused to accept that it was my best.
In competition, if you start with a decent jump like a 6.70m or 6.80m, you have a chance of finishing with a seven-plus jump. But unfortunately, I failed to improve on my first jump in Athens.
I was in no state to fight back that day. And it is at such times we realize that we aren’t machines.
The human body is capable of wonderful things. But sometimes it cannot rise to the occasion, leading to the kind of grim situation I found myself in that day.
This uncertainty is precisely what adds beauty to sports and competitions in general though. And I wouldn’t trade that for anything.
I had qualified for the 2000 Olympics as well. But unfortunately, an injury forced me to withdraw from the event.
Athens was my first Olympics, and I had arrived there right after my World Championship medal (2003). I was primed for success in the big event, but it wasn't meant to be.
The COVID-19 conundrum
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the world of sports big time, just like it has impacted all other spheres of life. Athletes were forced into the confines of their homes for months, without any training or competition. That presented an unprecedented challenge, one that nobody could have foreseen.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) postponing the Tokyo Olympics was also unexpected, resulting in an extended five-year wait for the quadrennial event. Athletes generally have a short shelf life, and the delay came as a huge disappointment to those with whom age had caught up.
But while the wait proved too long for a few, the delay came as a blessing in disguise for the younger athletes. It gave them another year to prepare for the Olympics, the biggest challenge of their lives.
Sure, Indian athletes missed out on a lot of competitions, and many who have made it to Tokyo might be ruing the loss of invaluable preparatory challenges. But the Olympics is also a celebration of sports, and being part of it is a unique experience for every athlete.
The celebratory feeling will likely prevail over any negative emotion that the athletes might be feeling due to the adverse circumstances.
Fulfilling expectations amid empty stadiums
The absence of spectators would definitely affect the Americans and Europeans participating in Tokyo. They generally perform in packed stadiums, and this will be an alien feeling for them.
Crowd support perks us up in competitions; when we are trying to go beyond ourselves and give our best, it helps to have someone behind you. That will be missing at this edition of the Games, so there will likely be an air of unpredictability around every event.
I for one will steer clear of making any predictions. But I have to say that India is taking some great talents to the Games this time.
Our throwers are performing well, and Neeraj Chopra deserves special mention here. He has participated in three international competitions ahead of the Games and should be in good shape for the big event.
Most of our other athletes at the Olympics haven’t had the same good fortune though, predicting what’s going to transpire over the next fortnight is virtually impossible. That said, I am hoping for a great showing from our athletes.
I am also happy that Murali Sreeshankar, a long jumper from my own state (Kerala), has qualified for the Olympics.
The men’s long jump will have intense competition, with many top athletes in the fray this time. But if Sreeshankar can hit something near his best of 8.26m or even beyond, I will be elated. He could actually reach the finals, and even end up in the top eight, if he manages that.
(World Championships bronze medallist Anju Bobby George produced a best of 6.83m at the Athens Olympics, which continues to be the Indian national record in long jump).