All eyes are fixed on the athletes as they walk out. Some seem to be trying to hide inside themselves, while a couple grow and seem to deliberately stand a little taller and wider. The whole atmosphere is electric, charged with tense anticipation; even the spectators feel it. A wave of nervous energy spreads out through everyone and continues building to a crescendo as the looming start of the much anticipated main event approaches.
Even in the crowd this energy insidiously creeps into fingers that suddenly start twitching and tapping of their own accord, into lower legs that rapidly bob up and down uneasily, and penetrates deeply into hearts that uncontrollably start to race.
The video cameras captivate us with a glimpse into the competitors’ world projected onto the big screen. One by one, we are introduced to the athletes up close. Instead of seeing recognisable expressions of focused enjoyment, most of the finalists’ expressions are surprisingly grave. This makes us recognise the gravity of the situation and the high stakes involved in this zero sum game. All but one of the eight finalists are already behind the starting blocks ready to go, staring down the pool as they inwardly battle their inevitably arising doubts.
Bizarre behaviour has become commonplace in this setting. The nervous energy has again found its way into limbs that are being shaken frantically. There are desperately tense yet failed attempts at awkward last minute stretches ongoing. Some finalists act as if possessed, with every cell in their bodies now saturated by the charge, it now effervesces out of them as they slap and beat themselves loudly, leaving visible welts and red bruises for all to see.
One anxious finalist impulsively drops down to scoop up and drink some of the pool water before spitting the rest out forcefully in a fine mist. The building restlessness and uncertainty has overcome their self-control and they now are at the mercy of latent compulsive neuroses. However, none of this skittish comical behaviour will have any positive effects on their performances.
Juxtaposed against the nervous jitters, one finalist looks out of place. He seems impervious to the pressure with his assertive, cool, collected presence. His chest is open, his legs are stretched out, and his head is held defiantly high while he lounges on the provided chair. He remains the only one still dressed warmly in his tracksuit, and his cap and goggles are held loosely at his side.
The camera crew swarms around him, bringing us the visage of a cold, steady gaze and a smirk beginning to pull at the corners of his mouth. The camera is in his face now. We all wait impatiently, wondering what he will do. There are no affectations of bravado to be seen here, but just the magnetic charisma that comes from simply being natural without trying to be natural.
And then it happened. Spontaneously, he looked into the camera and deeply into the eyes of everyone of the thousands of spectators present and millions of viewers on television, and winked just as the smirk opened up a bit more into the beginnings of a smile. He then reached down to casually unlace his shoes, thinking nothing of it.
At the exact moment of the spontaneous wink, something mysterious happened. It’s difficult to describe, but there was a giant collective sigh of relief. There was a sudden change in the atmosphere and everyone watching could feel the release of built-up tension and the immediate, pleasant difference it brought. It was as if the nervous charge that had accumulated in the atmosphere and permeated into tense clenched jaws, tapping jittery fingers, twitching restless feet and racing hearts had been grounded suddenly in a magnificent flashing arc at the point of its strongest opposite charge.
If you freeze the video of the event at the exact moment when he reopened his eye, and look closely into his iris, you can see the remnants of a flash of blue lightning. Maybe he somehow did that on purpose to absorb and focus the energy. We in the crowd will never know.
He is in control, and has been the whole time. The seven other finalists, the officials and the spectators all must wait on him as he takes his time undressing. The other finalists hurry desperately to get their last stretches, slaps and shakes in. He carefully secures his goggles in place, and then skilfully stretches and fits his silicone cap with his name and country’s flag over his head. He is ready now, and everyone knows it.
The starter blows the whistle, calling the swimmers up onto the blocks. The race is about to begin imminently, but yet this time the spectators are relaxed. Everyone suspects that they are also in on the inside joke, and that they too are privy to what that secret smirk was about.