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The Roar of Silence

By Mark Thompson | July 23, 2021, 2:48 p.m. (ET)

Opening Ceremonies, Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

THE ROAR OF SILENCE

Is The Path to Enlightenment Paved with the Pre-Game Jitters?

 

(Tokyo, Japan – 23 July 2021) – The American musical masterpiece, The Sound of Silence, written by Paul Simon (and performed to subtle perfection with his musical partner, Art Garfunkel), which was originally released in October of 1964 (notable, perhaps, as virtually the exact same time that the Summer Olympics last graced and transformed this great city), starts with the poetically brilliant play on words ‘Hello darkness, my old friend/…’. 

The lyrics of the song, which have been scrutinized by music critics on a scale somewhat akin to the way that the hydrogen atom has been scanned with the electron microscope, are usually said to address themes of frustration and alienation in human emotional connection and communication – which, when you’re in a foreign land where you don’t speak the language (and the vast majority of the people who live here don’t speak yours), seems somewhat appropriate – although I have to admit that, for me at least, the song that keeps bouncing around my brain in these early days of our stay in Tokyo is Led Zeppelin’s Communication Breakdown. But, as is my habit (for which I apologize), I digress.

For me, the genius of that opening line in Simon’s first (of what have proven to be many) classic is the five-word tour de force in which the song’s protagonist – right off the hop – grabs an element that is ordinarily perceived as the metaphorical weight of negative energy (darkness) and makes it his friend. He (or she) comes right out of the gates swinging and flips fear on its head.

On this day when we celebrate the Opening Ceremonies of the Games of the XXXII Olympiad at the New National Stadium in Tokyo, Japan, and now less than twelve hours before competition starts in the table tennis events, there was a palpable buzz in the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium at this morning’s practice session that I dare say we’ve all experienced at some moment in our respective lives on this planet: the uncertain sparks and shakes of nervous energy. 

Let’s face is, we’ve all felt the pre-game jitters – even if it may not have been on a stage where the entire world is staring (with critical intent) directly at us. Whenever life requires that we exit our comfort zone and challenge ourselves in a meaningful moment, fear is somewhere in the neighborhood, raising its ugly head and sneering in our direction. That same fear laughs in the face of WADA and USADA and becomes a virtually steroid-infused Monster (yes, with a capital ‘M’) when there are others watching. That Monster is radiated into Godzilla (okay, you knew it wasn’t going take long for me to get to a Godzilla reference in these pieces – although I must admit I’m more of a Mothra guy – but we’ll have to save that for another date, I suppose) who can with a single step stomp the skyscraper of our soul when those who are watching mean something to us. Whether we want to admit it or not, those butterflies in our respective stomachs simply mean that we really do care.

And it is in this moment – as fear threatens to freeze us in our tracks and turn us into stiff, stuttering and stumbling balls of bumbling ham-handed nerves – that we are most properly positioned to rise up and roar. This moment of vulnerability and exposure is when courage is most close at hand. In a single breath, we’re allowed to admit and accept that this is exactly the moment we’ve been waiting for. This great moment is only going to happen once. Take it. Embrace it. Look it in the eye and love it. This is what you were born to do. Make darkness your friend, my friend.

And, according to US Olympic Table Tennis Coach Stefan Feth, that is precisely what he expects Nikhil Kumar to do when he makes his Olympic debut Saturday morning at the TMG. Nikhil is playing in the morning on Saturday because, in the draws conducted this week by officials charged with managing the Olympic TT events, he was randomly chosen as the lone player in the top sixty-four in the Men’s Singles event to have to play a “preliminary” round.  He will face the 65th seed in the tournament, Lkhagvasuren Enkhbat of Mongolia. His chances of being selected to play in this match were one in sixteen – not infinitesimal, but not all that likely, either.

In the social media post regarding the draws for the Men’s Singles, I (yes, it was me – even though I know better than to go anywhere near social media – we’ll have to save that for another day, too) stated that Nikhil “had the unfortunate break to be randomly chosen” to play this lone “preliminary round” match. Now, by way of background, I come from the world of professional team sports, and for us, whenever you have to play an “extra” round in playoffs, it’s usually not a good thing for reasons that are far too numerous to list here. But, as I have been reminded, a table tennis tournament isn’t playoff hockey. Several people politely pointed this out to me. Thank you for the reminder. 

At practice this morning, I asked Coach Feth about Nikhil’s situation, and he was adamant that this first match was in fact a blessing for Nikhil – a valuable OPPORTUNITY for him to get on the Field of Play before virtually everyone else (other than Enkhbat, of course). Coach Feth expects Nikhil to embrace this opportunity – to knock off the nerves – to work up a lather – to grab this chance, tap into the positive energy of this early competition and use it to his advantage. In short, he expects Nikhil to make “darkness” his friend. Honestly, that is music to my heart.

By the way, the Sound of Silence is a great lesson on another front. When it was first released in 1964, it bombed. The only silence that the song inspired in the early going was that of the cash registers that WEREN’T ringing up from the record buying public. Simon and Garfunkel actually broke-up because the song did so poorly at the ‘box office’. But (because it’s simply a great song, I would argue), it hung around, found a niche audience in a couple areas of the country and survived long enough to get front and center placement in the 1967 Academy Award nominated film, The Graduate, which catapulted Simon’s unique touch into the American consciousness – and probably paid for a couple of new guitars (not to mention mansions and private jets) for him (and Garfunkel, too). Here’s to wishing the same success for young Nikhil Kumar and the rest of the men and women of the US Olympic Table Tennis team when they embrace these Olympics as their moment. 

Mark Thompson

Chief Operating Officer

USA Table Tennis

Related Athletes

head shot

Nikhil Kumar

Table Tennis