Sports

When Glory Eludes Us, We Pelt Stones At Athletes’ Homes

Giving an illustrious example of Dattu Bhokanal, a onion grower who clocked the fastest 15th as a single-scull rower in the world at 2016 Rio Olympics, Dilip D’Souza tells how passion drives all sports and keeps nation on an edge, always

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True winner: Dattu Baban Bhokanal in Rio
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Remember a young onion farmer called Dattu Bhokanal? I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t. For all he got was 15 minutes of fame, in 2016, six years ago.

Dattu’s father died in 2012, and with poor job and farming prospects in his drought-stricken village, he joined the Army soon after. There, he took to rowing and so seriously that he actually qualified for the single sculls event at the 2016 Rio Olympics: the only Indian rower at Rio.

Not just that. In his heat, Bhokanal finished third and qualified for the quarterfinals in the single sculls. His timing was the 17th-fastest of the heats. A few days later, he was eliminated in the quarterfinals. But his time then was much faster than in his heat. Also, he was so close to those who finished ahead that there was no doubt in my mind that this man belonged in their company. He ended 15th in the overall standing.

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That is—and take a moment to let this sink in—in those races on those days, Bhokanal was arguably the 17th- and then the 15th-fastest single scull rower in the world.

Yet shortly before the quarterfinal, the estimable Shobhaa De caused something of a kerfuffle with this tweet: “Goal of Team India at the Olympics: Rio jao. Selfies lo. Khaali haat wapas aao. What a waste of money and opportunity.” A translation of her tweet, if you want it, reads: “Go to Rio. Take selfies. Come back empty-handed.”

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Bhokanal was, of course, included in that sweeping De dismissal. To me the onion farmer had worked hard at a sport few Indians knew about, so hard that he qualified for the world’s premier sporting competition. Once there, he rowed his heart out and clearly proved he was someone to reckon with.

To paraphrase David Foster Wallace, I invite you to try to imagine what it is like to be the 15th-fastest in the world at something? What it is like to have done what Bhokanal did in Rio? What is it like to be ranked 15th among the 7 billion people on this planet?

Maybe you will then wonder if Bhokanal’s goal in Rio really was selfies. If it really was a waste of money and opportunity that he went there. If he really did come home empty-handed.

For me, Bhokanal’s Rio story is, in many ways, an allegory for how many of us fans view sports. I mean Indian fans in particular, but sports fans in general. We unthinkingly drown sporting contests in meaning they should never have to carry. That sets us up to react with short-sighted sarcasm when the contests do not go the way we might want; or with equally short-sighted elation when they do. This is not to suggest that sports should not stimulate highs and lows in both practitioners and fans. But the nature of sports calls for perspective. And when we hold on to that perspective, we might more fully savour the essence of sport.

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A tight match, nerve-jangling suspense as it ends and the release of pent-up emotions—what more could a true-blue cricket fan want?

Take the recent Indian victory over Pakistan in the T20 World Cup. It was an uncommonly thrilling match with twists, close shaves, blunders, questions and all through, magnificent performances from players on both sides. In short, it was a treat. Instead of the one-sided thumping that a powerful Indian side often hands out to mediocre teams, give me a closely-fought match like that every time, even if it had been India that lost.

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When the match was over, the reactions flowed in. They ran the gamut from crass to classy, uplifting to depressing. Some Pakistani ex-cricketers wrote elegant, eloquent words congratulating India and Virat Kohli, whereas some of their Indian counterparts directed  snide remarks at our ‘neighbours’. There was uproar about a particular moment near the end that involved a no-ball, a free-hit and three runs accrued to India. Pakistanis questioned the fairness of the relevant rule, Indians waved away any doubts; some of both nationalities wondered what the reactions might have been had the teams’ roles then been reversed.

Snide remarks and heartbreak aside, or even included, this is what a passion for sports is all about. A tight match, nerve-jangling suspense as it ends and the release of pent-up emotions—what more could a true-blue cricket fan want?

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And yet there was one small strand that may have got lost in the excitement. That was a remark from Ravichandran Ashwin, who batted only the last couple of balls of the match. He showed remarkable presence of mind, in that high-pressure cauldron, to leave the first ball, because it was a wide. Then he hit the winning run. Naturally, he was ecstatic. But speaking to the press, he said, “Now, no one will throw any stones at my home.”

Give that a thought. In his happiness, Ashwin was also mindful, in case any of us need reminders, of times in the past when an Indian loss has prompted fans to throw stones at the homes of various cricketers, Ashwin included.

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We could argue that such stone-throwing is also a release of pent-up emotion. We could also call it what it really is: a perversion of the passion for sports, a perversion that is waiting to happen when we imbue sports with fantasies of success and glory that elude us in other spheres of our lives. Given that these are players and teams representing India—and that this particular T20 game was against a country we take pride in detesting—the fantasies easily take on shades of religion and nationalism, too. The Indian cricketers Arshdeep Singh and Mohammed Shami have recent personal experience of that.

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Hero worship Indian ex-captain Virat Kohli Photo: Getty Images

Sometimes, the players too feel those shades.

Like Shoaib Malik, Pakistan’s captain at the inaugural T20 World Cup in 2007. When India beat his team to win the Cup, Malik said, “I want to thank everyone back home in Pakistan and Muslims all over the world. Thank you very much and I’m sorry that we didn’t win.” Was Malik playing just for Muslims? Did India’s Irfan Pathan, Player of the Match in that game, need an apology from Malik?

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Like Gautam Gambhir. Asked about victory over Pakistan in the 2011 ODI World Cup, Gam­bhir said, “I am sure the win against Pakistan would have helped [soothe the pain of the 26/11 attacks].” Gambhir was actually quoted under the headline: “I play for India, I play for people of my country”. What is the connection, I wish someone had asked Gambhir, between the murderers who came ashore to kill Indians in November 2008 and Shahid Afridi’s Pakistan team at that World Cup?

That may have played on his mind, in those few minutes, when bhokanal showed us, and her, that he was the 15th-fastest single scull rower on Earth.

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You say I am making too much of all this? Well, with us fans, this cocktail of religion and nationalism that we too easily drench sports in can also too easily turn dark and menacing. Throwing stones at cricketers’ homes after a loss is, in this part of the world, almost tradition. That is exactly what Ashwin was alluding to: his relief that in dea­ling with those final two balls as he did, he and his family at home were spared any immediate danger.

So, as Olympic Games and World Cups of various shapes and plenty of other sporting events all come and go, my continuing hope is that we fans give some thought to these themes. I hope we will come to understand that victories happen, but losses happen as well. That sportspersons work and train incredibly hard, especially at the international level. That it takes not only that hard work but also uncommon skill, courage and spirit to compete at that level.

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I hope we will understand: this is sports. Really.

I don’t know if Bhokanal heard what De had to say about him and his Olympic teammates. But if he did, I wonder if he compared notes with Robel Habte, an Ethiopian athlete. That country has had years of Olympic success in long-distance running. But Habte is a swimmer. In Rio, he finished dead last in his 100 m freestyle prelim race. Yet the crowd cheered Habte on and he later told the press, “I am so happy because it is my first competition in the Olympics. So thanks to God.”

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I don’t think Habte thinks he returned to Ethiopia ‘empty-handed’.

At the time he was competing in Rio, Bhokanal’s mother was in hospital in Pune. That may have played on his mind in those few minutes when he showed us, and her, that he was the 15th-fastest single scull rower on Earth.

So when her Dattu came home from Rio, I also don’t think she thought he had returned ‘empty-handed’.

(This appeared in the print edition as "The Heady Cocktail")

(Views expressed are personal)

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Dilip D’Souza is a Bombay-based author and sports lover. His recent book is The Deoliwallahs: The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment

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