With their airtight training and travel schedules, it’s a rare sight to see top athletes across sports under the same roof. The Indian Olympic Association’s (IOA) felicitation programme for the Commonwealth Games medallists this week provided that window. At ease after completing their Games duties, athletes could be seen in their natural non-serious selves. Once the news cameras went off, there was plenty of banter, bonhomie and jaw-hurting jokes exchanged between them.
Mizoram’s teen weightlifting star Jeremy Lalrinnunga walked towards a couple of reporters waiting for him sporting a smile and nodding his head. “Haven’t we spoken already before? Ab kuchh naya kahan se produce karun. Sab khatam ho gaya (It’s the same story. What else do I tell you that I haven’t spoken about yet?)” he asked.
But the 19-year-old settled down and explained his roadmap to the Paris Olympics for which he would have to put on another six kilograms since the 67kg category, in which he won gold in Birmingham, isn’t part of the 2024 Games. He wondered if that would give him an opportunity to tuck into some pork. “I think the dieticians will decide,” he said.
Hockey goalkeeper PR Sreejesh took extra effort to cross the athletes’ area, cordoned off by bouncers, and have a quick chat with his journalist friends. Returning after a 0-7 thrashing by the Australians in the CWG final, he warned against congratulating him on the silver medal. “Why congratulate us? We didn’t win this. They gave it to us,” he said. “Here’s the silver medal. Please keep it with you for the rest of the programme. Just return it to me later,” the seasoned ’keeper joked.
𝗖𝗹𝗮𝘀𝘀 𝗼𝗳 ‘𝟮𝟮 💜#TeamIndia medallists at @birminghamcg22 🇮🇳🙌#EkIndiaTeamIndia | #B2022 pic.twitter.com/ZqY1fid7m5
— Team India (@WeAreTeamIndia) August 13, 2022
In another corner of the hall, high jump bronze medallist Tejaswin Shankar was still trying to adjust his attire with his top pocket fighting for room. He had to stuff in the medal, his phone and other belongings there since “his” sherwani-like coat, the official attire, did not have side pockets. Technically, it wasn’t even his. A last-minute entrant for the Games, Tejaswin’s official attire hadn’t arrived yet. He was handed a wrestling federation official’s coat who did not make it to Birmingham.
“The issue was, it was huge on the sides and the sleeves reached my elbow,” says the 6’ 4’’ Tejaswin. “I was asked to take it to the official kit providers and get it altered. They had to reduce 12 inches in the waist area which meant the pockets had to be chopped off,” he explained.
One athlete who had no complaints about his attire was triple jump silver medallist Abdulla Aboobacker. He was so impressed by the simple yet elegant navy blue sherwani that the 26-year-old Kozhikode native plans to wear it at his wedding. “Ee suit addipoli aanu (This suit is amazing). I will go home and keep it safe for my wedding,” he said.
A galaxy of ⭐️🌟💫#TeamIndia‘s medallists at @birminghamcg22 are all set for the felicitation ceremony by @WeAreTeamIndia 🇮🇳🥇🥈🥉
Tell us which of the #B2022 athletes you can spot here 👇👀 pic.twitter.com/sJ1ZGWZ6EI
— Team India (@WeAreTeamIndia) August 13, 2022
The ever-smiling Avinash Sable, who returned with a historic steeplechase silver from Birmingham, was in no hurry to leave the hall. Even as the hotel staff were dismantling the ramps and other temporary set-ups, he chose to hang around to fulfil every single selfie request. He even had the patience to accommodate video calls from a few fans, presumably hotel staff members. “Can you take out the medal? It was silver, right? I want to screenshot it,” a fan requested over one such call. Sable obliged without hesitation.
“I actually like it. This is the only time they can meet me, so I understand,” he says. The soft-spoken Maharashtra athlete is a very reserved person. But on rare occasions when he does open up, he speaks his heart out. From insightful race analysis to his disinterest in Twitter to an awkward conversation with a TV journalist, Sable was in the mood to share. If time is not a constraint, Sable never turns down an interview request. But a day back, he did his best to evade an “unprepared” TV reporter.
“Ek channel wale aye the aur puchhe aapke koi medal hai (A TV reporter asked me if I had won any medal),” says Sable. His historic silver, where he ended Kenya’s expected podium sweep, is undoubtedly one of the greatest performances in the history of Indian sports. So, when such a question was thrown at him, Sable was left baffled.
“Even before I could reply, he said ‘don’t worry, next time you will definitely win a medal.’ I thanked him for his good wishes. He may not be a good journalist but insaan to achha tha (he was a good person),” Sable saw the brighter side of the awkward conversation.
Meanwhile, Jeremy, probably in a rush, had left behind his cardboard cheque in the hall. A little while later when he was informed about his missing property, the youngster was in no hurry to retrieve it. “No problem, you can keep it,” he joked as he left the lobby walking with a rapper-like swag.