SEVEN DAYS OF HELL IN MOSCOW

Dedicated to my friend, Vidya Mandir classmate and running guru, R.Srinivasan alias Cheeni alias Kopparai – a master strategist and tactician –  whether it is planning an 800 m / 1500 m race or planning for an Accountancy test !

His unique strides, running style  and the  way he kept checking  the positioning of  his competitors throughout the race was a treat to watch.

VM86 rocks !

Moscow

“He ran like an idiot” his father replied. There were murmurs in the room as the scribes digested this. After a short time but which seemed like an eternity, the press conference came to an end.

Back in their room at the hotel, Sebastian Coe confronted his father. “Do you think it was really necessary to say that ? Damn right I blew it but words like “idiot” are the journalistic equivalent of hard currency. Any scribe who doesnt make hay out of THAT would be failing miserably in his profession”.

But Peter Coe was defensive and defiant. “There was no way I was going to let them think it was YOU who was running out there. I had to impress that on their minds”, he shot back at his son.

Just the day before, Sebastian Coe had lost what should have been at the very least an Olympic record breaking outing and had to be content with a silver, losing to compatriot Steve Ovett.

The United States boycott protesting the Soviet intrusion into Afghanistan cast a huge shadow over the Moscow Olympics bringing an abrupt and tragic end to the careers of many top athletes.

Therefore, the participation of England provided a lens to focus on  middle distance running, which is known as the blue riband event of athletics – where tactics and tactical response provide an absorbing mindgame to athletics watchers.

Sebastian Coe  was the 800 m world record holder. This was HIS race. The press created this rivalry between Ovett and Coe.

Going into Moscow Seb Coe was under immense pressure. The press and public had already anointed him the 800m Olympic champion.

Just a month ago he had broken Alberto Juantorena’s World Record in the Bislett games.

In contrast, Steve Ovett was the showman and surprisingly, the enfant terrible of the press.

This led to an ongoing  the Press versus Ovett battle and the fourth estate  was  therefore looking for a white knight to overthrow him.

Ovett  also had a self destructive streak  in that he tended to exult before the finish – in fact he lost the 5000 m at the Montreal Olympics by a 100th of a second simply because his more focused competitor ducked into the tape while Ovett was doing his celebratory antics before the finish line.  This was diametrically opposite to the  Gavaskaresque Coe who didn’t let up till it was well and truly in the bag.

Coe didnt want any part of this as the pressure of being the World record holder  by itself was difficult to handle.

The 800m is a physically demanding and mentally taxing,  tactical race where a moment’s miscalculation can spell death.

But the climactic build up to the 800m final and the intense pressure of expectation didnt do Coe’s nerves any good and his nervous energy drained when he needed it the most.

He didnt want to be running the media s race.

The 800m Final

Come D-day and Coe seemed listless while Ovett looked jocularly hungry. Both athletes made it to the finals in predictable fashion. There was the danger of a European upset in the form of the German Detlef Wagenknecht (the British press called him Detlef Wagonwheels).

As it happens when the stakes are the highest , none of the frontrunners were willing to dictate the momentum of the race preferring to wait for a pacemaker to materialize before making their individual move.

From the beginning, Coe was stuck on the outer most lane for the most part of the race which proved to be his undoing.

Around the 400 m mark, seconds before the bell,  Coe found himself  in that worst of predicaments – he was boxed in by the other runners and could barely get out of the ”ring fence”  let alone get within striking distance of the race leader.

By the time Coe got behind the leader, Ovett was firmly in the driver’ s seat with 150 m to go and maintained the lead breasting the tape first and taking the gold in an unexciting  timing of  1:46 – nowhere near the scorching 1:42 of the month before.

 The Agony

Rather than be crestfallen,  Coe seemed to be relieved.

One ordeal was over but he didnt know that a bigger ordeal was about to begin.

Years later while reminiscing about the loss he said ruefully “In the home stretch you cant give Steve O-Vest (sic) the space the size of a vest’s thickness. He’ ll simply get away and there’s nothing you can do about it”

Ovett was understandably over the moon. He now had a shot at the middle distance double. A feat achieved only by Peter Snell of New Zealand four Olympic Games  earlier and he was the World record holder in the 1500m  to boot.

Coe senior concluded that upping the training ante was probably not going to help. Already the papers which had put their white knight on a monstrously steep peak were writing his obituary.

Did he have what it takes to perform when the stakes were high ? Did he have the big match temperament ?

Lost and confused, Seb did the only thing he knew to get his mind away from the problem – go for a long 12 mile recovery run. But he found the reporters were following him there too.

With the 1500m heats round the corner, coach and athlete, father and son, came to some firm conclusions –

No more getting boxed in

It was just too dangerous.
The 1500

In the first 1500m heat, in  line with the new plan, Seb Coe ran an uncharacteristic race playing pacemaker with the sole aim of staying out of trouble i.e not getting boxed in. The first 300 m was done in a fast  42 seconds  before he finished  together with Vittorio Fontanella of Italy at 3:40.

In another heat, Ovett won comfortably in 3:36 tailing Nikolai Kirov of Russia for the most part.

In the first semifinal, the devil seemed to get back on Coe’s shoulder.

Juergen Straub of East Germany led for the most part of the race.  At the bell Coe was in second with Gonzales of Spain hot on his heels.

With 300 m to go, Coe didn’t respond  to the surge by Fontanella of Italy coming around on the outside to his right and  Juergen Straub to his left.

The very thing that father and son feared happened once again………………

Coe was boxed in !!

But he managed to extricate himself and get on course fast.

With 200 m to go, Coe ran fast and wide round the others practically executing a parabola before getting out in front. The course correction was swift but not before stopping a few heartbeats.

Coe Course Correction 1

Coe Course Correction 2

Coe Course Correction 3

 

Coe Course Correction 4

 

The last lap was done in a searing 53.50, in stark contrast to the general slowness of the race.

Coe senior’s expression was a mixture of helpless rage.

He  seemed to be saying “What the Hell are you trying to do to me?”
There was yet another problem.

Seb caught a stomach bug.

Even a minor discomfort is not welcome when you are trying to get your bearings.

The team doctor gave him a few pills “to close me up” he remembered with an embarrassed smile.

The next semi-final had the two Brits, Ovett and Steve Cram, racing together.

It was a very slow race with the clock showing  1:05 for the first 400 m. It ended predictably with Ovett looking like he was batting on a different wicket.

In the last 100m, with the other competitors going hell for leather to the finish line, Ovett, ever the showman, did a strange thing  getting into the home stretch  – he made some repeated gestures in sign language to his girlfriend watching on the telly back home.
“I sensed he was taunting fate” observed Seb.

Coe was slowly coming around to that desired state of mind where all an athlete wants to do is close out everything else, just get out there and run – period.

He was also getting his appetite back and enjoyed the good ol’ Sheffield home treatment – Roast beef, potatoes and Yorkshire pudding in ample quantity.

Soon after nature took its course and the stomach bug vanished as surreptitiously as it had made its appearance.

Before the semi-final he knew that the aggression which had deserted him a week ago was now coming back when he used appalling language at the guard stationed at the gate where the team bus was to pick them up before proceeding to the venue.

After the semifinal the papers were ambivalent and had their knives sharpened for the obituary. “Does Sebastian Coe have it in him to win this ?” and that sort of thing.

Journalist David Miller of the Gaurdian had a different view. The day before the final he wrote :

“If Sebastian Coe gets within striking distance of Steve Ovett on Sunday …….he will win

 

The Final

At the gun Straub of East Germany was in the inside with Coe bringing up the outside and Ovett tailing him, suffocatingly close.  Ovett was tracking Coe all the way – stalking was more like it.  Similar to the 800m final, the pace was  slow.

The Brits had all their ducks in a row –Coe, Ovett and Cram (Steve Cram – the baby of the British contingent and subsequent 1500m World Champion in 1982).

in the third and penultimate lap  Straub  did the competitors a favour by pulling away and dispersing the field to “make room”.

At the bell, Coe was still in second position behind Straub. With 300m to go Straub shifted gears and “kicked” again. But this time Coe was right  in position to respond and upped the ante.

With 120m to go, Coe quickly checked where everyone was for the last time and like a repelling magnet pulled away from Ovett even as Ovett began to close in on him with his lethal kick on the home stretch.

In the last 50 m, Coe didnt look back to check whether anyone was closing in on him for fear of being turned  into a pillar of salt and breasted the tape first in a time of 3:36.

But surprise of surprises, Straub ran the race of his life and edged out Ovett for the Silver.

The finish line read  Seb Coe – Juergen Straub  – and Steve Ovett for Gold , Silver and Bronze.

It was Ovett’s first defeat over the distance in a long time.

The last 100m was done in a blistering 12.1 seconds. Similar to a record breaking 800m effort.

The Ecstasy

After breasting the tape it was more relief than exultation. Coe went down on all fours on the track letting the agony of the last seven  days ebb out of him. When a reporter thrust a microphone in his face and asked him how he felt winning the event, he was clueless.

Still in a state of stunned euphoria, he cried out “Oh Christ !”which promptly earned him a reprimand from the Bishop of Durham “Bloody magic Bloody magic !” exulted his traveling companion  from his hometown of Sheffield.

When Coe looked back at the replay of the finish he was embarrassed at his expression – almost like Luca Brasi at the point of being garotted by the Tattaglias.

 

Seb Coe 1500m Final

The press now rose in one voice and celebrated the victory of a young man who had gone through immense turmoil and finally conquered his personal demons.

Ovett was prompt in congratulating the winner and in one of their rare quieter moments together said thoughtfully. ” Do you really think its worth it …………going through all this pain ?”

“I wonder if he would have felt the same thing if he had won” Coe mused. But at one level he felt happy that Ovett didnt go back home entirely empty handed.

Though not in the expected event , Ovett had won an Olympic Gold too.

 

(Next week : His Name Means ‘Greyhound’ in Russian)

SUPER 30

A poetic reminiscence by my friend and classmate Kicha

Vidya Mandir ’86 Batch  Rocks !

NINAIVUGAL  MUPPADHU  (LOOOOOONG)
A 30 year look back. ..Palli mudindhu aanadhu aandugal muppadhu
andha naatkalai patriya ninaivugal koadi muppadhuNaangal sandhitha aasiriyargal muppadhu
Avargalai patriya ennangal sila muppadhu

LSK maidhaanathai kadakka nimidangal muppadhu
Lubber Sir thalai vaara edutha nimidangal muppadhu

Renuka miss maadhathil thittiya naatkal muppadhu
AG miss pudavaigalin ennikkai aayiram muppadhu

PT Sir maadhathil throwball aadiya naatkal muppadhu
SSM sir jannalai thirandhu weatherai azhaitha thadavaigal muppadhu

Physics Miss classil kaeta kurrattai saththam muppadhu
English miss classil aditha arratai nooru muppadhu

cricket match andru classukku varaadhavargal muppadhu
adhai arindha Tara Missudaiya BP eriyadhu muppadhu

ED class sollikudutha vaadhyaargal muppadhu
Aanalum adhil naan vaangiya markkugal muppadhu

Shantha Johnai yematri vaangiya markugal muppadhu
GBS Sir Examil Mohan schoolukku pona thadavaigal muppadhu

Palliyai vittu aana varudangal muppadhu
Irukkirom ippodhu ulagil idangal muppadhu

Pazhaiya ninaivugal thodarudhu eraalam muppadhu

Naam iruppome nanbargalaaga innum aandugal muppadhu

Editor’s Note :
While I was reading this, my father who was sitting next to me and is constantly fighting a losing battle with the Battle of the Bulge suddenly asked me.
“Unnoada Waist size ennadaa ?”
I replied “MUPPADHU !

HOW BLUE IS MY SAPPHIRE

(Dedicated to my Vivekananda College classmate Praveen, who nagged the hell out of me, short of jumping on my head, to write this)

This is a short story I had submitted to the Times of India ‘Write for Anita’ contest (Author Anita Nair) which  was written within the following constraints.

Contest Duration
7 May – 30 May, 2016

Passage by Anita Nair

Title of the Story:

How Blue is my Sapphire

Prompt:

All of us live with our past. All of us allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am…..

Rules by the Author

1) Name of the Story: How Blue is my Sapphire
2) Must be literary fiction that leaps off the page. Literary fiction is best defined as “works that offer deliberate social commentary or political criticism, or focus on the individual to explore some part of the human condition.”
3) The story shouldn’t have more than four characters and an animal
4) The story should play out in 24 hours.

Write India Contest Rules

  • Read carefully the passage provided by the author to help kickstart your story.You can use this passage at the beginning, anywhere in the middle, or the end of your story, but you must use it.
  • Each author has provided some rules he/she would like you to follow. Stick to the rules please.

 

HOW  BLUE  IS  MY  SAPPHIRE 

(This is a fictional account, loosely based on real life events which took place more than half a century ago)

I nervously made my entrance, super slow step by super slow step, into a place I had never seen before  – not even on the Warner Brothers back lot.

The butterflies in my solar plexus did a Salsa – none of the training in posture, voice carry and theatrical gesture prepared me for this.   Not even the  training in reacting  to cues……because……. there was NO cue !

“ Dont just stand around waiting to say your lines…….learn to LISTEN”, Mr.Chaplin had said once. But listen to what ? The low murmur of curiously excited 500 middle aged male voices like a Mexican wave ? I even resisted the temptation to dig into my memory and reproduce the Cinderella enters the Palace for the first time look. It would have seemed so artificial and elicited the reaction “Yeah ….She did that….JUST like we thought she would”. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.  Our actions become our past and for better or worse we have to live with our past – every little bit of it.

So I just fixed a somber, small grave smile on my face.

I needn’t have worried so much. The entire “congregation” stood up slowly but purposefully and applauded drowning out the Speaker of the House of  Representatives’  brief words of welcome.

I finally responded to THIS cue and slightly widened the smile and looked around like a speaker about to address her audience.

Actually I used this moment to satisfy my curiosity and took in the large hall, the various entrances, and the well of the huge hall in which I stood.

Cary never told me about this. Neither did Hitch. Though both of them had been in here before.

I finally sat down after being graciously motioned to do so.

So………….THIS was what the legislature of the United States  looked like.

It was done.  I had made it here – the last place in the world I would have dreamed of visiting.

Life is one big To Do List.

Strike off one and another takes its place. And unfortunately no bells ring when the aforementioned “one” is struck off.

My thoughts went back to last night to my arrival at the airport. I had stayed put in my seat even after all the passengers had disembarked.

Was that another item on my To Do List ? Unlike today I had waited seven years for that moment last night.

Can anyone even imagine what it must feel like to be united with one’s  daughter after seven years ? And this was not just a physical reunion. My daughter and I were estranged.  After all my years of penance and penitence she was coming around to understand why I left her father. She was beginning to understand  that it was the only way I could have been honest to myself and to him.

I did try with all my might to walk in her soul the best I could.

It was no small burden for her to carry.

Overnight she had become both daughter AND surrogate mother to her father, my ex-husband, a renowned surgeon.
As if his bitter monologues to my daughter weren’t enough , the newspapers and magazines didn’t help either. The churches didn’t want to be cut out of the latest cottage industry – holding services to “pray for the soul” of this witch (myself) while simultaneously burning her at the stake. This witch whom they had mistaken for an angel – this witch who had defiled and betrayed  the minds of millions of  Americans – who left her husband and daughter to marry a man in an alien land and bear his child out of wedlock

All the letters I had written her from my new home – not to blame her father but to make her understand why what I did was the most honest thing I could have done under those circumstances, seemed to have answered my prayers.

Last night I begged the authorities and the crew to allow my daughter to come on board the plane when it landed. They were magnanimous and  extended this privilege and understood that this one time my daughter and I needed our privacy in this moment of our lives.

I waited for what seemed a million years and buried a prayer under the feet of every passenger  leaving the plane, alternating between impatience, anguish and fatalism, praying that their sympathy alone would keep my daughter’s mind from swerving after I had caught up with her emotionally.

I could see my daughter from a distance making her way to the aircraft surrounded by the authorities and shielded by security men.

My mind darted like a crazy ball. Oh what would my daughter think ? Would she be put off by this whole “scene” of being “brought to meet her mother” like denizens of the royal court doing the bidding of a shameless monarch ? Would she think me presumptuous and arrogant ? Did she really understand why I did what I did ?

She had written several letters to me over the years reproving me and stating that that she was doing whatever she was doing only for her father’s sake.  And that I was a callous mother leaving her father forlorn and helpless.  He in turn reproached me for spoiling his career which up to this point didn’t have  a single blemish.

All because of my brazen behaviour. All his colleagues and the people whom he commanded at the hospital whispered behind his back. It was a miracle, he said, that his patients were not affected by his personal anguish and hellfire.

I quickly thought about  something else. My daughter was fast approaching .

I saw the theatre  where I had performed   more than a decade on my way to the hotel  last night and remembered the “Whites Only” sign outside the entrance. I was seething with anger when I saw that.

When I told the press the next day that I’d never come back to this city some people in the audience spat outside my dressing room and scribbled insults on the door.

My daughter was fast approaching the plane.

I’d written to her on more than one occasion that I’d reserved a room in the house especially for her with her name engraved on the door. Would she finally come to visit and meet her brother and twin sisters for the first time in her life ?

She was much older than they. How would she react to them?

I was getting ahead of myself – how would she react to ME !!

 

My pulse and heart beat pounded in my head. Should I keep sticking to my seat on the plane ? my comfort zone ? Oh what would my daughter think ?

The acid poured into my stomach, formed a roll like the bony remnants of a python s victim and sped towards my mouth. I swallowed with all my will power and made a decision. I left the seat and walked anxiously to the plane door.

The steps were empty and a security man motioned chivalrously to my daughter. She was confused and slowly climbed the steps. It was then that i threw the huge gorilla off my back and ran down the steps to meet her. I hugged her tightly again and again to make sure she was really there.
We both wept.

It appears that you are damned if you do and damned if you dont.  Many times I felt I was impelled to follow a certain route at a fork in the road and subsequently  faced such consequences that I felt waves of regret and an urge to turn the clock back. This was one such time.

Even the simple decision to run out and meet my daughter had its consequences. This morning’s papers gave a lot of coverage to our “reunion” – not all of it complimentary.

A  PUBLICITY  COUP” ran one headline. ” She doesn’t stop at using her daughter for publicity to resurrect her career” the scribe went on.

I was emotionally spent to a certain degree and shrugged. It helped that at long last my daughter was beside me to touch and reassure me. That was all that mattered at this time.

The papers could go and drown at the bottom of the ocean. I had once contemplated jumping into the oil slick filled waters at the docks in the town where I grew up because I mistakenly thought I had not been selected to the Royal Dramatic Theatre.

That seemed ridiculous now.

My daughter  seemed to read my thoughts and gave me a smile which was somewhere between triumphant and tragic.

I squeezed her hand more to focus on  the here and now.

This place, this legislature was where I’d been denounced seven years ago after the public outcry against my action by a senator, a representative of the American public.

“ It is a heartening thought” he stated eloquently bringing his excoriation of me to a dramatic finish. ” It is a heartening thought that there is a silver lining in the dark stormy clouds…… that from  the ashes of this fallen woman will arise a New Hollywood”.

At that time I was too preoccupied fighting for my daughter’s mind. But it still festered in a corner of my brain.

That was THEN. And wonder of wonders. Here I was at the invitation of the SAME Senate House !

I’d rehearsed my lines and was waiting, not in the sidelines this time, but right at the centre……..for my CUE.

Just like I was waiting for my cue at the press conference a decade ago to register my protest of the racist policy of disallowing a certain class of people from entering the theatre to watch our play.

A senator was making a speech now.

” Madame….we realize the pain, hardship and anguish caused by the remarks of one of our members here on the floor of this house. We now wish to publicly apologize and acknowledge the great contribution you have made to this great nation’s art and culture through your performances  on screen and the stage.”

THERE it was !   ……my CUE !!

Its nice to be magnanimous and I couldn’t wait to deliver the lines I’d been rehearsing  for the past seven years.

“Honourable members of the House”, I began. “I thank you for your gracious apology and retraction. Its wiped away my hurt to a large degree. “

I continued. “When you mention Hollywood I cant help but observe that many things have changed in these last few years. Many things have been  turned upside down.”

“ For instance the studios at MGM have been purchased by a TV star, Lucille Ball. The other studios are struggling while going down under fighting the multiple threats from Television and other forms of entertainment. “

“It is ironic that we are now presiding over the demise of Hollywood when the senator in his denunciation of me years ago on the floor of this House stated  “From the ashes of Hollywood will arise a New Hollywood””

I stopped and looked around waiting for the audience’ s reaction. There were beatific smiles all around. Some of the smiles were vacuous bordering on confusion.

Now I was perplexed. Did I communicate exactly what I had wanted to. Slowly the realization dawned on me.

I had laid a huge egg. I had said ” from HOLLYWOOD’s ashes will arise a New Hollywood” and NOT “from INGRID BERGMAN’s ashes will arise a New Hollywood”.

I was the only actress who had waited seven years to deliver a line and BLOWN IT !!

Without realizing it I had exorcized my resentment.

I had stumbled on the formula for happiness – Good health and a Bad Memory.

All of us live with our past.  All of us allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am……..

Ingrid Bergman - My Story