As the Greek athletes first entered the Maracana Stadium on Friday night, behind a beautiful plant laden tricycle, an entire stadium full of people rose from their seats to salute the Olympians. The excitement of the games is a uniquely humane experience that transcends time. The Olympics is a magical congregation of athletes from around the world, which serves to unite and inspire an entire species as nothing else does.
It is a fortnight of breathtaking festivities that will leave billions of people astounded at the unfathomable brilliance of our species. A little more than 11,000 athletes will take the nearly 7.5 billion people on earth on a voyage of discovery, helping establish the limits of speed, endurance, elegance, and exertion for a human body.
The Olympics is a celebration of what might be, if our species put its head and heart in the right places. All of the noises that preceded the tournament are already a distant din. The violence, a plunging economy, a president in impeachment, a threatening virus have all dissolved quickly into the ocean that surrounds Rio.
All the noises have been replaced by a silent seething excitement. It is simmering inside every soul like lava inside a volcano, waiting to erupt at the first sign of excellence from the Olympics in Brazil.
In the days to come, jaws will drop, people will gape and gush, hearts will stop even if only momentarily — as our athletes deliver the spoils from four years of blood, sweat and toil.
The winners will be celebrated nearly as solemnly as we might our own divine illustrations. There will be empathy and tears for the vanquished. We will learn a little more about the fine margins between winning and losing, even as we appreciate the travesty in our instinctual need to separate the two.
The pursuit of glory is a lonely road of endless repetition and tireless effort. Only those that embrace the pain and pressure have a chance at victory. The rest will have to make do with the honour of being an Olympian, an undiminished badge of pride for the rest of their lives.
Over the next two weeks, we will be at the receiving end of a feast that combines longevity, unimaginable excellence, enduring human spirit and some athletes’ battle against the odds, just to remain alive.
Oksana Chusovitina, 41, and Leander Paes, 43 – both parents and professional athletes – will be inside the Olympic village like decorated chieftains. They will be in Rio for their seventh Olympic sojourn; staggering just to think, as 28 years is the equivalent of an eternity on an athlete’s scale of time. Winning pales into the distance with athletes such as these, just participation their reward for perseverance, faith and longevity.
Michael Phelps, his collection of medals greater than the collective haul of several smaller nations, is back in Rio for yet another round of affirmation. The American cannot settle for second best and he needs the Olympics to try and reiterate his own sense of self-worth. After all, the world has enough evidence when you have already won 18 gold medals, and 22 overall.
Usain Bolt could perhaps ask for a statue next to Christ the Redeemer, and get it too. The Jamaican has been a towering presence on the athletic firmament. He is perhaps the last remaining hope that you could excel in sport without resorting to a deviant diet. If he can complete a unique triple in the 100m and 200m this month, he will make a great case for clean, yet compelling sport.
But the Olympics isn't just about megastars such as Bolt and Phelps. Artistic gymnast, Dipa Karmakar, is as unlikely a candidate for Indian Olympian as can be. She has fired up imaginations ever since winning the bronze medal in the 2014 Commonwealth Games, but barely anyone expected her to qualify for Rio 2016.
The hard working Agartala girl though has paved her own path with steadfast focus and unwavering commitment. She is one of just five gymnasts to have ever completed the Produnova in a competitive event. The vault is fraught with danger, consisting of a front handspring and two front sommersaults, sometimes referred to as a vault of death.
Since being introduced to the Olympic orgy in 1980, I have never prayed to nature as hard as these past few weeks for the safety and success of an athlete, in equal measure. I do not know about Karmakar and Biswaswar Nandi, her coach, but I have to admit that I cannot wait to see the Tripura girl complete her routines as quickly as possible. Medal or not, it barely matters, cause it is difficult to find a braver human being than this young girl.
Then there is the gripping narrative of Yusra Mardini, a Syrian who has taken refuge in Germany. The 18 year old survived an arduous 25 day journey, including a swim across the Aegean, in her quest for a new home. She is part of the ten member Refugee Olympic Team taking part under the Olympic flag in 200m freestyle event.
Rose Nathike Lokonyen, the flag bearer of the ten member refugee group is from South Sudan. The 23-year-old will run a 1500m race for ladies in these Olympic Games. Until a year ago, Rose ran barefoot since she could not imagine or afford to buy a pair of shoes.
With such an eclectic cauldron of competitors in the mix, the Olympics is an unmatchable celebration of our diversity on the planet. The athletes unite as one in a vast village, the preserve of these athletes during the course of the games, reminding us of the futility of the conflict that underlines modern existence.
Over the next fortnight, the athletes will unveil the true gifts of our species. As they carve new records they will push the frontier of human limits into a new space.