Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Ja-Panning for Gold

I have been an unabashed admirer of many things Japanese, especially their sense of aesthetics and attitude towards teamwork.

Recently I was dredging my memory for some childhood inspirations. One of the first memories that floated up was of our time in Hyderabad – the 1970’s - when my elder brother was fascinated by Bruce Lee, Karate and Kung-fu. He once told me about a Karate master in Japan called Yamaguchi. This old man had so perfected his art that he could, with one stab of his fingers, break through the shell of a tortoise and pull out its innards.

At that point of time I thought more of the master's fingers than of the poor animal that lost its protection, and, perhaps life.

Sometime during the early 80’s, in Kerala. I was rummaging through my grandfather book collection when I came across a small story in the Reader’s Digest. It was about a Japanese gardener who specialized in growing Chrysanthemum flowers. His flowers were so beautiful that news soon reached from the royal palace that the Emperor himself would be coming to see them.

As soon as a date and time was confirmed, the gardener set to work. One by one he started cutting and removing flowers from his garden. Hundreds of flowers were destroyed and by the time the Emperor arrived, there remained in his big garden just one chrysanthemum flower. “Why did you remove all the flowers here?” asked his friends. He replied, “Since the Emperor himself was coming to see my Chrysanthemums, I did not want him to be distracted by anything less than the most perfect, exquisite flower in my garden!”

I have sought the original story on the web, in vain. While I was on Google, I searched for another story that had made a deep impression; one of sheer grit, determination, self-control and dedicated to the Team. I had once taken a clipping from the 'Illustrated Weekly of India' sometime in the 1980’s; it was the story of a Japanese gymnast.

The details turned up instantly. The name of the hero was Shun Fujimoto who had participated in the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics. Here is an excerpt:

"After severely breaking his knee during the floor exercise, Japan's Shun Fujimoto ignored his injury as long as possible, knowing such news could shatter the confidence of his teammates.

The injured gymnast continued on to the pommel horse routine, miraculously scoring a 9.5 out of 10. He then faced the rings, which would be his final event of the day. Shun performed extraordinarily, ignoring the inevitable consequences of dismounting from eight feet off the ground. Upon completion of his routine, he hurled himself into a beautifully executed triple-somersault dismount.
When his feet hit the floor, the pain sliced through him like a knife, but he kept his balance. Gritting his teeth, he raised his arms in a perfect finish before collapsing in agony. He was awarded a 9.7, the highest score he had ever recorded on the rings.

After winning the closest gymnastics team competition in Olympic history, Shun joined his team at the podium to receive his gold medal, and he did it without assistance."

What is it that gives ordinary mortals super human sensibilities and strength? What are the socio-cultural ingredients, the schooling-methods, the training and conditioning that encourages – or demands – a relentless pursuit of excellence?

Shun Fujimoto - a pioneer in taking one for the team (photo attached)

Official Website of the Olympic Movement
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