In the pantheon of India's mega-events, the Commonwealth Games follows the Asian Games and the Big Oh at a respectful distance. And often is reminded of the fact. But the images and results from Gold Coast have carried along with them an additional memo. That during every contest, medal round and moment of counting, what comes through from every CWG competitor is a sense of desperate hunger, of yearning and urgency. To stay in the reckoning, to push ahead regardless of everything around them, be it formidable opponents, tautness in body or apprehension in mind.
The fact that this is a Commonwealth Games, where medals arrive with splendid regularity for India, didn't matter. Or maybe it did even more because the possibility of defeat and its consequences were too awful to contemplate. Either way, as you saw the Indians compete, you realised all over again how competitive sport at the elite level promises nothing. It must only be dived into with zero guarantees. No matter what event you are competing in or how large the cache of achievements, experience, form or history that you carry.
On Tuesday night, Mohammed Anas ran the race of his life in the 400m (but he thinks he can do better) with rain overhead and cramps in his legs, virtually toppling himself over the line in a fourth-place finish. Saina Nehwal played her singles match against Soniia Cheah in the mixed team final with the intensity that she will bring to a world championship or an Olympic final. Nothing was to be left on the sidelines. Watching Jitu Rai, his four gold medals from World Cups, Asian and CWGs notwithstanding, shooting the last few anxious rounds of his 10m air pistol final was an education in itself. To the untrained eye, his grip didn't look rock-steady, even the commentators asking if they saw a slight shake.
Heena Sidhu, India's best-known pistol shooter amongst the women, had never won an individual gold in a multi-discipline. She knew it, we knew it and she knew we knew it. In the 10m final, Heena had been pipped to silver by a fast-rising 16-year-old Manu Bhaker and in the 25m, had missed seven of her first 20 shots (in a total of 50). Her face showed nothing but she stuck her left hand stuck into her trouser pocket, rooted her stance and ploughed on. In the next six rounds, she nailed 25 out of the next 30 shots.
On Wednesday, over the course of the men's double trap final, the first competitor to be eliminated was Australian James Willett, silver medallist from the Rio Olympics.
For every competitor, when they are in it, the CWG becomes their world. Victory is always craved for, defeat always stings and every event will matter.
The Games mean everything to everyone competing. Ciaran and Sinead Chambers, a brother-sister mixed doubles badminton team from Northern Ireland, faced the world No. 8 Malaysian team of Soon Huat Goh and Shevron Jemie Lai. They lost in straight games, but shaved 18 points off them and, in the middle of it, even had a giggle over their successful challenge of a line call.
To the Indian table tennis and squash players, a multi-discipline games become their career-defining highlight. Their sports live in the shadows of newspaper columns and television ticker, not 'priority' in the eyes of the sports ministry, not top of mind to the general public. But at the Gold Coast, Achanta Sharath Kamal, Joshna Chinappa, Manika Batra and Harinder Pal Singh Sandhu and their teammates finally find the stuff that athletes crave. The theatre of it, in front of -- thank you, God -- an audience their skills deserve. Crowds, lights, noise and, dammit, relevance. It is where their much-loved sport is loved by more than it has ever been, even if only for a few days. At a Games, they are reminded, this is why I am special. This is how special I am. It is what makes every contest so vital to come through.
It is the stuff that elite sport is made of. After the Commonwealth Games, let this fact stay with every kind of watcher -- whether swept by sport through the heart or those of us trying to be objective assessors in the head. In elite athletic competition, the degree of difficulty doesn't go from undemanding, moderately demanding to very demanding. Its trajectory runs like this: exacting, severe and brutal. At varying levels of skill and competition, medals are won by those who find a way to cope.