India's Olympic Class of 2024
Well, hello there.
Look at you. En route to Paris, nerves jangling, emotions aswirl. Runners, walkers, jumpers, boxers, wrestlers, gymnasts, lifters, shooters, judokas, swimmers, from hockey, badminton, table tennis, tennis and sports we'd never imagined we'd be half-good at. Each of you burnished with the reckless energies of youth and ambition that make you soar - on land, through the air or in the water. They have got you for the first time to an athlete's promised land - the Olympic stage, the place where giants roam and legends are born.
It is where your life could change in a matter of minutes. You must have been bombarded with information and advice by well-intentioned older folk - coaches, trainers, officials, family and friends. About working hard, being focused, staying in the moment, concentrating on the process, going the extra yard, breaking out of your comfort zone.
On the internet, you may have found letters by star athletes to their older (or younger) selves. The Older Selves will be reminded about their often seemingly endless struggles when young. The painful, lonely anonymity of early morning training, the quiet triumphs of invisible improvement, the aching sacrifices of your loved ones, the stubborn belief of a coach in some corner of your village or town who saw something in you and who prays for you every day. The letters to Younger Selves will be reminded about the route to the top. They will be told to keep dreaming through the striving and straining because it eventually leads them to the mountain peak.
This is another kind of letter. It's from the outside, from a bystander, one among the large mass of Indian sports fans who want your talent to become thunder and lightning, to dazzle and reverberate through the ages.
This letter is about Champion-hood: the stuff beyond getting there and winning something. To talk about this now may appear to be preempting fate, but hey, you have always run on optimism's fuel. You don't know it yet but sporting success not only changes lives overnight, it upends your existence at a dizzying speed. So think of this letter as a pair of gecko gloves - the kind that will help secure your grip as you step up onto that moving, shaking climbing wall called Stardom.
"Everything you achieve will come from within from learning and experience. If you have the answers to questions sport will ask of you, you will triumph."
As Indian sports fans, we want each of your lives to change for the better because you deserve it. You and every one of those people who offered you their shoulders as a platform to stand on in order to pursue dreams. Always keep them in mind, because no champion is an island. Hang on to those who keep you grounded, walk away from those who can only praise.
You do not realise it now but you are one of a lucky generation - far better resourced than a previous generation of Indian athletes and, if compared to those who preceded you three or four decades ago, gaining greater notice, attention, rewards.
As first-time Olympians, what stand out for you today are, in fact, longstanding fundamentals. Like being aware that when you step up to compete in round one in Paris2024, you are owed nothing. No allowances will be made for how you are feeling on the day, no preferences will be given over who you compete against, no margins or shortcuts or privileges specially for you because you have put in the twenty thousand hours and, hey, you deserve a lucky break. So has everyone else and so do they.
Everything you achieve will come from within, from learning and experience. The physical and mental control required over your craft, your skill, your gift will be tested. If you have the answers to questions sport will ask of you, you will triumph. When you do, that instant will be pure, it will bring rapture and relief and complete something inside you. Make it a point to mark it down in memory, deliberately somehow, because that moment will never come again.
What will never go away is an unshakeable fact. As long as you are a competitive athlete every time you step onto your field of play, the scoreboard will always show zero. No matter how much you achieve or the rewards and riches that fall your way or how much your life changes. On the field of play, be forewarned, none of it will matter. You will always be tested, because challengers will always be at your heel.
To expect a storied past to dictate your athletic future is an addictive but eventually toxic entitlement. It will corrode your legacy rather than enhance it, reduce whatever you've earned through your career into a series of angry headlines. You will get some attention and sympathy before the public's eye moves onto someone else, without baggage, who is not throwing their toys out of the cot. Real champions don't sulk, they adapt and they endure. They are tough - not on their retinue, low-ranking officials or unfavourable rules - but on themselves.
Your body will age, your mind will sharpen and your sport will test your devotion to it and what you are willing to do to stay in contention. It will require you give of yourself rather than find ways to get more of the perks - celebrity and its attendant nuisances - that sport hands out. This is not being coy about money - everyone needs it - but your personal investment and returns in your sport are the best ways to ensure money follows you, rather than you having to chase it. You will earn more than some, less than others, but fretting over it will not help because you can't change your sport. Keep studying it as a competitor because the knowledge you will carry into retirement will be gold. Every year produces new winners but champions last forever.
"As long as you are a competitive athlete, every time you step onto your field of play, the scoreboard will always show zero. No matter how much you achieve or the rewards and riches that fall your way or how much your life changes."
Then there's those awards: pay no notice to them. Your generation can actually afford to. There was a time when there was no money in the Arjunas and Khel Ratnas and Dronacharyas or state awards, but these days the cheques are sizeable. It has led to squabbling between athletes and coaches, with some athletes even nominating more than a few coaches over the years in an exchange for a cut of their Dronacharya cash. The awards arena in India is unseemly, even seedy, stay away from it. To demand awards as your birthright is un-champion-like. Performances and results resonate through generations, not the number of government awards won. Twenty-five years from now your name should carry the weight of the game you played and not flickering memories of a sulking, squabbling superstar.
So, as you first-time Olympians embark on your careers, the world awaits.
Put the gecko gloves into your kitbag, travel light, travel true.