Sport works at various speeds. It takes four-and-a-half seconds for Neeraj Chopra’s javelin to fly 88.88m in Hangzhou last month. Then it takes over 20 minutes for him to walk the roughly 30m of the media mixed zone. The TV guys are hogging him, the print guys are swearing, Chopra is smiling. He’s a gentle hero with a word for everyone.
A metal barrier separates us from him, across which are thrust a tangle of arms holding phones. Words are recorded, emotion makes for interesting listening. When the Singapore sprinter, Shanti Pereira, wins the 200m, she cries at the mixed zone and there are tiny portions of the recording where all you hear is silence and a choked voice.
Footballers disappear post-match into tunnels. Cricketers trudge into pavilions. Silence is a superstar prerogative. Lionel Messi, for years, said little. Roger Federer charmed in multiple languages but so many stars find shelter behind sterilised quotes in press releases and one-sided posts on Instagram. But at a major Games, at the mixed zone, all athletes are revealed. Every one, from medalled god to 45th-place finisher, has to walk past a line of barricades after an event. There is no hiding.
Even in sportswriting, a hierarchy is in place. Access is doled out on the basis of influence and circulation figures. But on this classist planet, the mixed zone is a democratic place. Like sport itself, everyone has a chance. Every journalist, irrespective of the reach of their paper, can request an athlete to stop for a chat. Not everyone does, but most do. At the Olympics, Michael Phelps would. In Hangzhou, Mutaz Barshim, probably the finest high jumper ever, kept stopping for groups of reporters, a rangy evangelist for defeating gravity.
The mixed zone is like attending class in sports. It is compressed insight. It is immediate glimpses into respect, anger, disbelief, excuse, acceptance. In an increasingly rehearsed world of sport, here you can find spontaneity. A Chinese official tells Pereira she has one minute to talk because her medal ceremony beckons and she politely responds in Mandarin: “Five minutes. I have a lot that I want to say. I won, I want to talk.”
At the mixed zone, their events just over, athletes are raw and dazed, their smiles blunted or beatific. Victory is registering, defeat is sinking in. What do they think? They are not always sure. But they speak—the Asian Games News Service will itself record 4,968 flash quotes—sometimes eloquently enough to still you.
At the Tokyo Olympics, my colleague Lin Xinyi felt apprehensive about attending the boxing yet is forever grateful she did. At the mixed zone, flyweight boxer Carlo Paalam, silver medallist from the Philippines, gently sobs and speaks in his native tongue. “I didn’t understand a word,” remembers Lin, “but I felt his emotions. I had a hunch he was saying something profound.”
She asks a Filipino journalist to translate (a routine courtesy) and this is what Paalam says: “The silver medal symbolises what I went through because when I was a young boy I was a scavenger and I collected junk and garbage. I know this medal is made of recycled materials and I can identify with it.”
Paalam is not the only one crying. So is Lin.
Everyone has a story, even the swimmers from Mongolia, Maldives, Timor-Leste I speak to after morning heats. Some train in 25m pools because there isn’t a 50m one available. Some, like Imelda Felicyta Ximenes Belo, 24 at the Games, say that at 16 she didn’t even know what goggles were. How do you understand sport? Through all its interpreters like her.
Sport isn’t just hand-eye voodoo, it’s also this little unseen theatre which unspools in the badly-lit basements at athletics stadiums or at the crowded cordons at the swimming. Here you can talk anything. Eggs if you wish, arias if you are lucky. In Rio 2016, a German weightlifter confesses he eats 10-15 of the former every day. In Beijing 2008, a Singapore swimmer promises a song if she qualifies for an Olympic final. She does, she sings.
In London 2012, after the 100m final, Usain Bolt is the only conversation and Yohan Blake, who takes silver, is ignored. So the Jamaican comes up to the brilliant Indian Express reporter Mihir Vasavda, looks at his accreditation and starts talking about his cricket ambitions. “Maybe,” says Vasavda now, “he was just glad that someone was willing to talk to him.”
Drama is small, subtle, telling. Athletes pause interviews in the mixed zone to watch other athletes on a TV set. A swimmer’s voice breaks in Hangzhou just after her dream does. In Tokyo 2021, at the table tennis, Liu Jia, 39, plays Syria’s Hend Zaza, 12, who is two years older than her daughter. In the mixed zone, Zaza takes out her phone, Liu poses, a selfie is taken. All Games are hard yet human.
What fragment of a sporting year stays with you? For me it’s a moment in the mixed zone. It’s Saurav Ghosal in Hangzhou who has five squash medals in singles from the Asian Games. None of them gold. In 2014, he had a match point. This year he led the final by one game to love. He’s close but this gold is like a tease.
His belief is shaken, spirit dented, body beaten, dream foiled, insides raw. He wears a smile built in some rueful factory, praises his rival, won’t duck questions even ostensibly on retirement (“I’m sorry I’m asking this,” says the questioner; “It’s fine,” he replies) nor flinch from the chance he missed (“that’s the one medal I really wanted… I don’t know if I’ll have another shot”).
How does your body feel? he’s asked.
“Broken,” he laughs.
But not him.
On the worst of days, Ghosal came and spoke. In the glass cube, he had slipped as a player. In the mixed zone, he explained his grief. The graceful measure of an athlete is revealed in arenas. But also behind a barricade.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold. He posts @rohitdbrijnath.