Sporting Life: Still a race to be faster, higher, stronger, just later

A devastating illustration appeared the other day of the Olympic rings standing as five separate circular units. Not symbolically intertwined as normal, but practising social distance. It represented a world in separate pieces.

A virus has shut down cities, closed borders and grounded planes. Nothing is safe from its reach, so what chance does a Games have. Now, finally, the Olympics is postponed and we must temporarily reword its motto: Faster, Higher, Stronger, Later.

Equipment must be put away, invitations rewritten and the Olympic village presumably kept empty. In Rio 2016, Omega, the official timekeeper, used 200km of cable and optical fibre and you wonder how much has been laid. The greatest show on earth must be packed into cartons.

At least, one can say, the dilly-dallying is done. Sport thrives on optimism but the International Olympic Committee was stretching it too far. In a tense time, arguing about a festival seemed tasteless. It was time to say stop and let the world focus its entire attention on a more serious opponent.

Five years from now, maybe 10, we will appreciate the terrifying scale of this pandemic. This virus is changing most of us even without infecting us. People will have put off weddings and delayed the purchase of a house. Everyone, in a way, is being asked to forfeit something. You give up privacy so that you can be traced. Nurses give up their families and in places their personal safety. Athletes now must give up their chance.

Sportspeople understand that there is a grimmer competition at hand than a race for medals and yet, understandably, they will feel disappointed. The Olympics isn't just a game, it's a four-year, self-worth expedition that has been interrupted. But if it is cruel, at least it brings clarity, for it allows athletes to rewrite plans and restart dreams. Dithering is not their style.

Wars have denied athletes an Olympic chance and political boycotts have halted them. Don Paige, the fastest man in the 800m in 1980, missed the Moscow Olympics that year because of the US' no-show. He told CNN that when the Olympic 800m final began, he stood near a tree in his parents' yard. He could not watch.

This postponement is different because history has not been altered by politics but by a disease that cares little for nationality and medal tables. This is a chance not stubbed out but delayed. Nevertheless, even if it is for a single year, this stalling will have consequences. Can athletes hold on to form, will their sponsors sign for another year, can school wait, will they be too old?

Every athlete will be confronted by their own challenge, but their armour is their stoicism. Adversity is an old pal and Paralympic champion Yip Pin Xiu's cheerful tone refused to fade yesterday. "From the time I was 12," she said, "I have dedicated my whole life to competitive sport. So I will keep going. I'd already set my mind about going to Paris (in 2024).

"I don't know how to feel yet because I was excited for Tokyo. I don't want to feel disappointed. I just have to change my perspective and tell myself I have one more year to train till it happens."

Athletes swallow pain and push on, they look for solutions, not blame. Jasmine Ser, the shooter, who was still trying to qualify for Tokyo 2020, said: "We have to keep a positive mindset. If we have to stay home, how do we practise? How do we sustain our drive without competing? Now that it's postponed, we must ask, 'How do we adjust?'"

Sportspeople understand that there is a grimmer competition at hand than a race for medals and yet, understandably, they will feel disappointed... if it is cruel, at least it brings clarity, for it allows athletes to rewrite plans and restart dreams.

A century ago exactly, after a terrible war claimed over 35 million lives, the Olympics resumed after a break in Antwerp in 1920. Wrote David Miller in The History Of The Olympic Games And The IOC: "Glad to be alive, European athletes in particular were disinclined to complain about the spartan nature of some of the accommodation, food and washing facilities, the hard bunks and hay-filled pillows of converted schoolrooms."

They came to compete, thrilled at the opportunity to contest for medals in a time of peace. It is what we hope next summer will be. A joyous, sweaty season to be alive.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2020, with the headline 'Still a race to be faster, higher, stronger, just later'. Print Edition | Subscribe