15 August: Judging by the streets that lead from the airport into Jakarta, you might think that the Indonesian Grand Prix, last seen in 1993, has been resurrected. It hasn’t, but it appears that no one told my taxi driver, who sped towards the city. Nothing like breakneck speed to keep you awake after an eight-hour journey.
The 2018 Asian Games promised to be a tournament of firsts. Not just for e-sports and 3-on-3 basketball, but also for me: my first multi-sport event, after three years of covering primarily cricket. It certainly started off like that: my flight from Mumbai was delayed, causing my connecting flight to be rescheduled to the next day, a first.
Then my suitcase failed to turn up, clearly not as enthusiastic as I was, another first. And finally the AirBnB I had booked seemed unsatisfied with hosting just me, and insisted on accommodating lizards on the ceiling and grime in the bathroom. I hastily cancelled, another first. Did I hear someone say shubharambh (auspicious start)?
16 August: Unlike what most people think, Indonesia is a secular country, despite more than 80 percent of the population identifying with Islam. As we walk through the thick morning heat, I ask my colleague (mostly in jest), if it was cool to wear shorts? In all seriousness, she promptly passed the question on to a volunteer, who nods her head; her bobbing hijab conveying what her limited English could not. The first KO (knockout) of the Asian Games, preconceived notions on the mat.
Eventually, the thought of shorts evaporates as I spend most of the day being grateful for my denims, in the chilly warmth of the Main Press Centre (MPC). The Main Press Centre is to the media what the Village is to the athletes. We sleep there, almost.
Imagine a convention hall converted into an open plan office. And yes, I picked seats next to the food counter. One of the advantages of an eastern culture hosting the Games is that they take good care of all the hungry mouths, and there were a lot of us (them, I meant them).
There may be more than 10,000 athletes at these Games, but shadowing them are thousands of journalists, photographers, broadcasters and anchors. The MPC houses about 500 of these at any given time. While in the Athlete's Village they may ask 'how many World Records does he or she have?', in the MPC, we ask 'how many megabytes per second the wifi is doing?'
The Athletes Village is where you want to be though. For media, a visit there is so precious that you have to barter your passport for a pass. The village is seven towers, built specifically for the Games, with small rooms for some large bodies, their balconies draped with national flags.
They cast evening shadows over a green courtyard and the amphitheatre, where many people stand in different uniforms: cadets in white, holding flags and standing next to flagpoles. Young girls in traditional costumes swaying to the music, welcoming the athletes to the official ceremony.
And the athletes themselves, in their national kits. The green of Macau. Uzbekistan in blue and white. The flowing white thawbs of the Saudi Arabians. And our country in red, the word India written in a font that looks like an intersection of Devanagari and English.
We found the athletes showing off a trait that they call upon so often in competition: patience. Ceremonies, even these smaller ones, are fun for you and me, but rarely for the athletes. They are hiding from the sun, hunkering on concrete. We find them like this when we arrive... who knows how long they have been there?
I look for the cauliflower ears of wrestlers. I see pint-sized gymnasts, who stand a full head below my shoulder. I see hockey players who could belong to the basketball team and basketball players who I would never have picked out of a lineup.
I am ashamed that I have to ask, Who is that? Which sport do they play? Why do I not know my own athletes better? I am abashed when I fail to recognise Kidambi Srikanth, who I have watched with interest over the last year. Surely he is taller than that?
The highlight of the day is watching our flag go up on foreign soil, to the tune of our national anthem. Twice in two days, and hopefully many more times in the next fortnight. The lowlight is hearing about how teams from the Indian contingent weren't sent to events where our chances were fancied and seeing our athletes resigning themselves to the ‘ask-no-questions’ culture.
On the way back to the MPC, I chat with a volunteer, a 27-year-old lifelong Jakartan. She talks about how their country goes to elections next year. Same here, I say. She speaks about how she finds her country more divided than she has ever seen. Same here I say. She hopes the Asian Games will help people get together. If that entails finding common ground, she and I made a pretty good start.
17 August: My bag arrives. It is so good to brush with my own toothbrush again.
Updated Date: Aug 18, 2018 13:50:31 IST