It was 4th August, 2012 and India’s hopes of a bronze medal in the London 2012 women’s badminton were rapidly fading away. Having lost the first set 18-21 and trailing 0-1 in the second, Saina Nehwal would need to pull off something special to claim the medal. It was at this stage that in a bizarre twist of fate, her Chinese opponent Xin Wang suffered a knee injury that forced her to retire thereby forfeiting the match and the bronze medal to Saina. I remember wondering about what the Indian shuttler must have felt at that moment. Joy? Relief? Guilt? But there she was on the court, calm and composed – walking over to her hurt opponent to share some words of support before exiting the court with only the slightest wave as an acknowledgement to the supporting crowd.
Fast-forward to Rio 2016.
A sporting spectacle, as grand as this, is bound to have its fair share of victories and tragedies. One such tragedy unfolded day before yesterday when India’s Vinesh Phogat suffered a nasty blow to her knee during her 48kg women’s freestyle wrestling bout with the Chinese Sun Yanan. Vinesh was ahead by a point when this happened but as the world watched her writhe on the mat, she knew that there was no coming back.
As I was seeing all of this unfold on my live stream, there was something else that piqued my curiosity. How was her opponent expected to react to this? What happened next was beautiful although probably missed by most of the millions watching. There were no celebrations when the referee called Yanan to lift her hand and pronounce her winner – her face was a mosaic of pain and guilt. As the stretcher carrying Vinesh made their way out of the ring, Sun’s coach motioned for her to help the convoy. Without hesitation, she picked up a bag from one of the officials who was carrying the stretcher and walked an injured Vinesh out of the venue. That girl in the red tee you see there? In the third pic on the first row – that’s her.
To both the coach who cared to impart such often overlooked values to his cadet and the 23-year old wrestler, you have my deepest respect and admiration.
If you lacked the ability to be both a Champion and a Sportsman, which one would you rather be?
When I compare that to yesterday’s women’s badminton semi-final, where the defending champion Li Xuerui suffered a knee injury while trailing by a set and down 16-17 in the second, the difference is stark. Sure she received extended on-court treatment (or break, depending on which side of the camp you’re on) and hobbled around the court to finish the last few points, but the reaction of her opponent, the current world champion Carolina Marín, on winning the match was almost bordering on adding insult to injury.
Which got me thinking about the initial question in the first place – if you had to choose either, would you be a winning champion or an inspiring sportsman first? Moot point – can you even be a winning champion without being an inspiring sportsman?
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