With a sharp glance, Japanese Women Table Tennis ace Mima Ito tilts her paddle at the very last moment, right before the ball lands on it. A blur of white skips across the blue surface and into the rim of Yu Mengyu’s paddle. As the ball flings out of control, Yu threw her arms in a frustrated sigh.
This is the Tokyo Olympics, and it has been widely protested domestically for being dangerous and a waste of resources. It is not hard to see why: The past two years have been wrecked by disaster after disaster as every nation on the planet struggles to hold their ground against the incessant waves of a virus that keeps on mutating. The Olympics has already been criticised economically for being an unpalatable decision for host nations for years, and the backdrop to this year’s Olympics threatens to snuff out the bright red hydrogen-powered torch of Tokyo.
This is not an article about the cons of Olympics. This is me, having some thoughts after watching people do sports while I munched on a stack of satays. This is an article reflecting why I am still happy to see the Olympics this year.
Of Heroes Among Men
The injured Yu takes a far-right shot that caught Ito off-guard, the latter freezing for a good moment as her brain caught up to the events that just transpired. She blinks, as attention seized her gaze once again, as if chastising her: Make no mistake, this is a veteran of the sport, one whom you were crushed by back when you were 14. Ito draws a deep breath, and under the immense pressure of 126 million Japanese on her shoulder, Ito incredulously draws a calm smile. She looks into the ball in her steady palm as she tosses it up for her serve.
Like many others, every four years, I turn into an armchair sports expert who recycles the insights that the actual commentators write. Do you know that Ito is the only female table tennis player that China has to prepare specifically against? Also dubbed “the greatest threat to Chinese Table Tennis dominance”, Ito is merely 21 years old this year. She also won the 2016 Summer Olympics at just 15 years old.
Yu is no less impressive. At the age of 31, as the 26th seeded player, Yu defied all expectations to contest against the 3rd seed for the bronze medal. She might have injured her leg, but she is not going to back down without putting up a good fight.
Every Olympian reminds us of the best of us. In every bout, the other end of the table always stands a respected fellow craftsman, someone who spent their whole lives dedicated to the one sport they do. The simple strokes, the mind games, the training, the nutrition, the sleep… all a country has in resources and hopes grew eyeballs that stares at this one person before you.
In them, we see our better selves. We recall that eager morning we leapt out of bed, excited to go to our new school for the first time. That earnest afternoon we grinded to complete a project. That languorous night we mopped the studio floor of our sweat after finally nailing that choreography.
We recognise that unbridled passion and razor-sharp focus and what it could do if that kept up for a person’s entire life. And that inspires us.
Of Strength Unfathomable
A mere 3 kilometres away, a group of men stepped up to their boards as they adjusted their goggles and tightened their caps. On count, they bent over, and with a leap their pointed body pierces through the calm water surface. This is the men’s 100 metre butterfly swimming qualifying heat.
On the leftmost lane is Joseph Schooling. He’s a man that wowed his countrymen with his physical prowess in 2016, but 2021 is a little different. In 2021, Joseph Schooling displayed mental resilience befitting that of a national pride.
“It’s hard to swallow,” says Schooling. He clocked 53.12s, placing him 44th overall out of 55 – a far cry from his Rio Olympics record of 50.39s. Yet, he stands in front of the press, hair still wet from the heats, as he explains that “sometimes things do not go your way”, but what is important is that “you live to fight another day”.
To have the expectation of no less than a gold medal, to be known as the man who beat Michael Phelps, to be given the hopes of your entire country to carry, and to walk in front of that camera, candidly objective at his mistakes: that is the mental fortitude of an athlete. That straddles the fine line between self-indulgence and self-condemnation.
It is ridiculous for anyone to be able to move that fast in water, let alone be disappointed at being one of the fastest swimmers in the world. This, of course, is only the case because we are talking about the Olympics. Every athlete here is a superhuman in their own right.
Similarly, we often have a habit of holding ourselves to unrealistically high expectations. Of being as good as we once were, of always having to one up ourselves in a bid for constant improvement.
It is okay if you feel lost right now. Perhaps you could not land the internship you needed this summer, or maybe you had not been the most productive in the past year. Your mental health may have gone south and yet you kept finding new, creative ways to condemn yourself.
Recognise that you have fallen short, acknowledge the fact of the matter and do your best to encourage yourself to fight another day. You did what you could, and that does not take anything away from who you are.
The Olympics teaches us not merely what our bodies are capable of, but the strength of our minds and the will of our hearts to soldier on.
Of a Flame in the Night
Back at home, I pick up a satay and jam it into sauce in one swift motion. As I pulled the first segment out of my mouth, the momentum carries the stick forward into the plate again, my hand skilfully spearing pieces of cucumbers on its way. All the while, my eyes transfix on the shutters clicking away at the young Mima Ito, now a bronze medallist.
The Olympics is such a bizarre spectacle. It is the routine of the world. Every four years or so, rain or shine, in sickness or in health, countries all around the world gather at an arena to play games. Neither trade disputes nor historical animosity, neither religion nor civil wars, we see the PRC play with the ROC, we see Koreans playing with the Japanese. At this moment, there is no war, just a celebration of what the human race is capable of.
Yet we know it is but a mere spectacle. A regularly performed ritual of sorts that the world puts up, be it to spark patriotism or to boost tourism. The Olympics then represents something noble, yet something sort of useless.
But how useless is it, really?
Hypothetically speaking, if you and I were to buy a pint of Ben & Jerry’s one fine night, and devour the whole thing as we watch Netflix, I suppose we can call it sloth or perhaps gluttony. Either way, it will not be a pretty adjective.
Now, what if I just got fired from my job, and I were to binge on ice-cream and Netflix. Does it somehow become more morally palatable?
What if I had a terrible year, and I make it a point to eat ice-cream every weekend by myself to cheer myself up?
That is not a vice. That’s self-care.
What if we all had a terrible year, or a terrible century, or millennia?
The Olympics, even if one were to deem it an indulgence, is self-care. The Olympics is humanity’s way of dedicating time to remind ourselves of the best of us. In the past century of disasters and heartbreaks and frustration, I do believe it is only healthy if we acknowledge how bad things are and take a quick break to remind ourselves of a hope for a better tomorrow, before we move on to fight another day.
Because things do not always go our way, but what is important is that we live to fight another day.