'The Olympic medal had been the most precious thing that had ever come to me. I worshiped it. It was proof of performance, status, a symbol of belonging, of being a part of a team, a country, a world.'
Muhammad Ali's gold from the 1960 Rome Olympics was so precious it had never left his neck... until he chucked it into the Ohio River, minutes after fighting with a racist biker gang as well as being refused service in a 'whites-only' restaurant in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky - as detailed in his autobiography 'The Greatest'.
India's wrestlers were mere metres away from repeating history, before Bajrang Punia, Sakshi Malik and Vinesh Phogat were talked down from letting go of their precious medals in the Ganga (albeit temporarily). Their actions, in pursuit of justice against WFI chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, sparked a plethora of opinions that the medals weren't theirs to throw away.
'Return the crores of taxpayer money spent.' 'This is an insult to the coaches who trained you.' 'These medals belong to the nation'
This was pretty much the gist of reactions once the wrestlers released a statement announcing their intentions. Greater concern was shown for a circular object made of 95% copper and with a metal value of $5 than lives of potentially harassed and abused wrestlers.
Yet, the medals absolutely, categorically, belong to the wrestlers alone.
Crores of taxpayer money have been spent on our Olympic/World medallists, but this was never a charitable pursuit. The Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) and the Government of India do not hand out money willy-nilly, but rather to potential medal candidates alone. The truth that's never admitted is this is a means to an end - the glory of a nation, prestige earned in the international arena.
Politicians bask in the glory of the athlete once they return, as if solely responsible for their success. The limelight, especially in India, is always shared.
The medals that Bajrang Punia, Sakshi Malik and Vinesh Phogat earned over the years served their purpose - India and its politicians revelled in their achievements, with the federation never shy of taking credit. The 'debt' had already been paid in sporting glory.
The idea that the wrestlers owe money that's been spent on them falls flat because it's never a matter of funding alone. You can spend crores, you can hire the best coaches, you can streamline the entire system and still end up with zero medals if the athletes aren't made of the right stuff. If it were just about the money, 'the fifth largest economy in the world' would not trail 57 countries in the all-time Olympic medal tally.
What about the coaches then?
At the highest of levels, it is fair to say that coaches are well compensated. They are literally doing their job - it's not a favour. Where things get murkier is when starting out, when coaches take a chance on a promising athlete, often times funding their development with their own time and money. This is a charitable action no doubt, but let's also remember that when said athlete achieves success, it trickles down to grassroot coaches as well.
'I was the first to identify Bajrang/Sakshi/Vinesh' certainly carries with it lifelong credit, a well from which it can always be drawn upon - whether the medal lies at the bottom of a riverbed or hung up in a glittering trophy cabinet.
And therein lies the crux of the matter; because had the wrestlers gone ahead with their intentions, their feats would still remain. The Olympic stadiums would still have the names of Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik etched on their walls with Vinesh's World Championship medals still present in the record books.
Ali's feats in Rome remained in the record books too, and he received a replica at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in lieu of his 'lost' medal. The Ohio River wasn't strong enough to erase his sporting success.
The medals are a memento to the athletes, a representation of their career's journey crystallised into an object. The meaning attached to this object is that of the athlete's alone. Their blood, their sweat, their tears, their medal.
Ali was ready to part with his medal simply because it lost all meaning when his hometown, his country, failed him.
That the wrestlers were similarly ready to part with their life's work simply underlines how bereft they felt - that this was their last, and only, resort. After all, they were in search of their greatest medal.
As Vinesh had told ESPN earlier 'If sports improve because of an athlete, then is there a bigger medal than this? Winning this battle would be no less than a medal.'
And this one would be theirs, and theirs alone.