No reality show, no soap opera, no scripted melodrama can rival the unhinged spontaneity of live sport at a major Games. Drama is guaranteed, a final twist frequent, redemption constant, heartbreak assured. This is the sweaty, bleeding, crying, grappling version of Asia's Got Talent.
Tomorrow it starts. Tomorrow onwards they throw punches and hurl dreams at each other. From tomorrow referees will call "play" and athletes won't stop till beaten or exhausted. From tomorrow we understand again that victory is complicated. Athletes need validation that all those early mornings of pain in practice were worth it. Not everyone wins gold, but for some just being the 8th best shooter out of 4.4 billion Asians will be celebration in itself.
Tomorrow - or maybe even next week for athletes who start later - Incheon's heart rate will rise. It is why, in their final days before competition, many athletes chase calm. Yesterday, in conversation, Singapore sailor Cecilia Low uses that word; badminton player Derek Wong repeats it; sprinter Calvin Kang echoes it.
If they haven't trained sufficiently, if their homework hasn't been done, they can't fix it. It's too late. Now the only thing that can help is staying cool.
They'll try not to stress themselves with the truth that if they fumble, or make a rookie error, it makes a year of hard work redundant. They'll try not to overthink what the sailing wind might do or if the lighting in the shooting hall is distracting. As Kang eloquently says: "The more relaxed you are, the faster you can be. If you're tense you have to fight the tension, the inertia."
Calm takes hard work, calm isn't easily found, calm is often just the child of routine. Athletes may be inventive in a ring, or original on the water, but in truth they're creatures who crave sameness. They may not necessarily be familiar with Aristotle, but they are athletic philosophers who believe in his dictum: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit."
Repetition is their reassurance. Inside the arena, shooters have a pre-shot routine, going through the same process of waiting, breathing, lifting, aiming, squeezing for every one of 60 shots. Yet even off the field, the athlete is a slave to the structured life.
Low and her sister Priscilla - in Incheon since Sept 7 - rise at a prescribed time, practise on the water for a set time and then laughingly sharpen their table tennis skills. Like everyone else, they have abundant free time here which must be efficiently managed. As badminton's Wong says: "The one thing I don't want to do is to stay cooped up in my room. That is the easiest way to make myself nervous."
So they wander the Village, and play the drums, and watch other athletes, seemingly living a spontaneous existence, yet in truth so much of what they do is carefully designed. As Kang explains: "We have planned out our routine for the next 14 days. It's all training and rest, but mostly rest, and slowly gearing up for that one shot."
Routine is comforting because you can carry it with you. In Incheon, the weather may be different, the food unusual, the accents strange, the stadiums foreign, but you still have the familiarity of your day. When you wake up, what you do, how much you eat, that doesn't change, that at least stays within the athlete's control. As badminton player Vanessa Neo says: "I've been to many Games and know what to do. And I like routine because I don't want to get out of my comfort zone."
But no athlete is ever perfectly calm and no calm ever lasts. Eventually athletes need a little tension that arrives with anticipation and the edginess which prefaces an examination. As sprinter Gary Yeo says: "As we get closer to the competition definitely there'll be more excitement. It's good to have that adrenaline rush before a competition, it gives you a boost. You feel like your body is raring to go."
And then it's time, a starting gun fires, the referee whistles, the drama commences. In soap operas, there's always next week, but the next instalment of this particular Asian drama is 1,400-plus days away in 2018.
The athletes know. This is their chance. So breathe. Visualise. Think. Act. Seize the moment.
Life, suddenly, is anything but routine.
This article was first published on Sep 19, 2014.
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