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Athletes come wearing armour of hope and optimism

The Straits Times by ROHIT BRIJNATH

Books are often randomly pulled from bookcases and last week I grabbed an old favourite, Rocket Men by Craig Nelson, which charts the journey of the first men on the moon. Neil Armstrong was originally a test pilot and there was a poetry to the motto of the Air Force Test Centre at Edwards Air Force Base: Ad Inexplorata. Towards The Unexplored. It sounds like a phrase most athletes should have pinned to their walls because their entire lives are focused on taking giant leaps.

This week the Commonwealth Games, an archaic collection of nations, open on the Gold Coast and 6,600 athletes will be headed in the same direction: Towards the unknown. From Australian swimmer Kyle Chalmers whose joy lies in raising blue-tongued lizards to Indian gymnast Rakesh Patra who went to court in India to ensure a fair selection process, everyone comes dissimilarly talented but somewhat similarly armed: Hope in one hand, optimism in the other.

Take weightlifter David Katoatau, who has to be an optimist, for he comes from Kiribati, population just over 110,000, and still defeated the entire Commonwealth in 2014 in the 105kg class. He dances after his performances and it's a way of drawing attention to Kiribati - a collection of atolls and islands - and also rising sea levels, and in 2015 he wrote a letter which read in part:

"As a sportsman I have offered everything to my country but I cannot save it. On behalf of all the people who will die for the country that will no longer exist, and for the culture, which will long be forgotten, I am asking for your help." His dance is hope.

No athlete at the Games will own the same story and yet they speak the same dialect: struggle. This fortnight they will fight injury, the flu, rivals, form and to do so they will wear an armour of optimism. "I can do this" will be their mantra. Even if it doesn't always work.

Lam Chih Bing, the former T-shirted Singapore golf pro who is now a suited banker, said he retired too late and his explanation is compelling. He'd play one or two good rounds and it was enough to convince him that he was about to play well. "I always felt good enough to turn the corner," but the corner was always out of reach. Yet he pushed on because he said, "I think most athletes are eternally optimistic even though they are struggling".

At these Games there will be Olympic champions, no-hopers, first-timers, but the sub-tribe I enjoy the most is the last-chancers. The ones who probably aren't coming back in four years, who may have come out of retirement for one last taste of a big Games, one last chance at a Commonwealth medal, one last thrill of executing a complicated skill. As if nothing is to be left unexplored.

The sub-tribe I enjoy the most is the last-chancers. The ones who probably aren't coming back in four years, who may have come out of retirement for one last taste of a big Games, one last chance at a Commonwealth medal, one last thrill of executing a complicated skill.

Hoe Wah Toon is one of these eternal optimists, an old man for a gymnast at 29 by which time the body, like a rusting spring, begins to lose its flexibility. He has Singapore's first vault medal from a Commonwealth Games in 2014, and he's retired before and returned, and stopped again and restarted, like an addiction he can't bear to give up.

These Games weren't in his programme but even as he coached he would tumble in the gym, just a routine move, like a vault with a full twist and a single somersault and feel the satisfaction of nailing it. In the corner of his mind, he heard that voice of optimism too: "I can still do this."

There is a poet in some athletes and you hear it when they speak of their sports. Ask Hoe about gymnastics and he talks lyrically about "the feeling of controlling the body in mid-air", a rapid act of seeming artistry but born of technique, bravery, exactness, repetition. It is a one-second flight of freedom.

In the vault, Hoe will just know, from the time his hands push off the table, whether something's gone awry, whether he's not got the height he requires and thus needs to rotate faster and make some slight, mid-air adjustments in a desperate attempt to land something not executed well. You can't tell his error, but he'll know it and meet it with hope and training.

He is an aerial optimist and he will relish once again the camaraderie a Games offer, this four-yearly union of various clans in different costumes who love the strain of exhaustion and the pinch of pressure. It is the privilege of competition.

Optimism will swirl amid angst at these Games because hopelessness is of no use to athletes. They will cry but tell themselves, "I gave my best", they will fail but remember small things they did well. Then, as adventurers do, they will start again.

And then one day the athlete says enough for she has run out of energy and ambition and Games. Cyclist Dinah Chan, a SEA Games gold medallist, retired recently and says "fatigue ate into me and I can't perform well any more". Optimism fades and real life arrives and she's not sad but "relieved". Maybe because she rode into the unknown and then returned. Her talent fully explored.