Abhinav Bindra is not looking grumpy. That’s a start, I tell myself. The text came at 2am last night, and here we are, a scant 12 hours later. He is jet lagged and hates interviews.
“Why are you interviewing me?” he shoots. Always quick to trigger, this one. With a year to go to the Rio Olympics, it’s time to check on our first individual gold medallist, I explain. The decidedly marked swathe of grey in his hair makes him look wiser than his 32 years and adds weight to his quizzical expression. He is not satisfied. “That’s the past. In sport, yesterday doesn’t count. Who cares?” he scoffs. But you won gold, I say. “Why are you going on and on about the past?”
“You set a new milestone…”
“Ho gaya woh toh (it is done).”
“Broke the glass ceiling…”
“Done and dusted.”
Abhinav is the most cerebral athlete I have ever come across. Perhaps, it’s that intelligence that gives this man the prudence to not let his singular triumph overwhelm his present. When he smoked the paper target with a final shot of 10.8 (the best possible shot is a 10.9) to claim the 10m air rifle gold at the Beijing 2008 Olympics, he became the first ever individual gold medallist from India.
A nation of a billion took 29 Olympics to earn one claim to unrivalled sporting excellence. “It’s a lot of luck, it’s a lot of luck,” is Abhinav’s nonchalant take on the achievement.
Evading the arc lights
In his place, most athletes would covet the attention and perks of stardom; Abhinav shuns them: “The whole aspect of being in the public eye, the whole aspect of fame is something that no part of me really wants.”
When he returns to India from training abroad, he usually runs off to his fortress-like home next to the Chhattbir Zoo on the outskirts of Chandigarh. There, amidst white-gloved help and armed guards, he shoots and shoots at a private range in his backyard, trying to live up to his expectations of himself. That’s more than a bit different from the norm.
“Fame? It’s just not my drive.” Are you a very private individual? “That’s obvious. That I will become famous? It’s not my drive…, it’s not my drive”. Usually loquacious, he fumbles to explain what is so plain to him. “That’s not why I do it.”
It’s about hard work
Then, why? “Because it’s very hard; it’s challenging. I suck at it and I am trying to be better and trying to get the best out of myself. I am not competitive, that’s my biggest problem.”
I’ve met many achievers in life, not one has been so self-effacing. Few Indian sports persons admit to inadequacy. In today’s age of self-promotion, Abhinav is a rare vintage. Hard work at the range seems to be his form of worship. “Obviously at some level I like the sport. At some level, I like the process of the sport. At some level, I like the torture, the struggle, the fight.” You sound like a masochist? “Maybe, at some level. I don’t see any other reason why I would be doing this!”
But how does a sportsperson win medals without being competitive is the obvious ask. “By hard work. By killing myself. By just simple hard torture. Naturally? Not. I try. I try very hard.”
The shy guy
There is this constant refrain that has hummed through all our interactions. Abhinav Bindra is a man at war with himself. He has clinically taken himself apart. As is the wont of any sharp human being, found himself wanting when stark in the mirror. Coupled with that self-analysis, he also must overcome the drag of a not-so-athletic disposition. At 5’8” and weighing in at 70kg, Abhinav looks more like a banker with his manicured hairstyle and fashionable stubble. “Naah, naah. I just didn’t get time to shave,” he mutters self-consciously. I point out that the prickly bit under the chin is smooth. Perhaps the wee bit more stylish Abhinav is consequent to an enhanced social life?
He’s suddenly shy and wary of the photo journalist who’s accompanied me. “I didn’t know there were going to be pictures. What is this? Please stop taking photos. What’s this? With great difficulty I have come here. I don’t do these bloody interviews.” My colleague Vipin is a seasoned pro. He backs off only to keep clicking, retreating chameleon-like into the surroundings.
Why do you hate press interactions, I have to ask. “I don’t. I just don’t have any achievements to talk about.” There. That then is the essence of this man who refuses to live in the past. For him it is the future alone that shines, that beckons. The glories of the past are but a memory.
Abhinav is an exacting taskmaster and that frail physique hasn’t always kept up. He has picked a bad back here, a tremor in muscles there, and various ailments. The injury chart of any top athlete is not pleasant reading.
“They are not good (his ailments). I have a lot of issues, lot of problems. I have been trying to deal with them. It’s been very challenging. But what can I do? Either you give it up or keep trying. Keep trying to find solutions, keep trying to compensate for them some way or the other.”
After the berating, the clinical bent of mind again shines through. “I am doing well at the moment but am not quite there. I am really close. I have never been so close in my career.” He lets lip an interesting fact. “I have 95%,” he admits of his form. “That last 5% is a lot.” Then he repeats meditatively. “I have the 95. The quality of training is unbelievably good.” Abhinav now trains with Heinz Reinkemeier, the husband of his former coach Gaby Buhlmann. Buhlmann has moved to the Italian team.
In his usual interplay of the cold with the positive, Abhinav quickly dismisses the brightness. “But who cares about training? End of the day you have to do it when your ass is on fire. You need b##ls to do it at that time, right? That can’t be taught. You just have to have it. You have to somehow find a way from deep within to do it.”
But hasn’t he already proved that he has what it takes? “Yeah, but you need further b##ls to keep doing it. It’s not a one-time issue, na? It only gets worse for an individual like me. I am self-destructive, you know, in a lot of ways. I am analytical, think about stuff… it’s good to be dumb. Just shut everything up and do it. That’s the best way to do it… I am just not able to do that.”
It is evident to me that Abhinav is not one for the middle path. This mild-mannered man is a bit of an extremist. Take for example what happened after he won the Olympic gold medal.
“I couldn’t shoot for a while. About two years. There was so much of desperation earlier. I was desperate for 10-15 years to get this medal that it completely drained me. So after the Olympics for two-three years I was in no real state to shoot. I only started getting it back late 2010, beginning 11. That drive, that feeling for shooting. Now that I am coming to the fag-end of my career, I am beginning to like it.”
Does he really feel he’s near the end of career? Abhinav is not yet sure. “Perhaps, maybe,” he retreats. “Can’t say for certain but I have taken many unwise decisions in my life.” Sporting life or personal life? “Talking about life, sport is just a miniscule part of it. Although I make it up to be too much, maybe that’s an unwise thing. There you go. That’s an unwise thing --- to make sport so important.”
Unwise or not, he has made his sport his all-consuming passion. His only drive. In a strange choice of a lifestyle, he seems to revel in putting himself through pain. Abhinav comes from an affluent family and doesn’t need his sport to live well. “For me it’s a riches-to-rags story,” he laughs.
He has touched the pinnacle of his chosen sporting field. It has already cost him a lot in terms of ailments. When it comes to money, it’s a constant drain. But most crucially, it’s eaten away at the prime of his life. It consumes all his time. Why does he carry on?
The best may yet come
“I have been able to squeeze a few medals here and there but I haven’t been able to perform to my true potential and that kills me. That’s why I do it. It’s hard and it’s heart breaking. In practice, I am damn good. Very good.”
The world is yet to see the best of Abhinav Bindra. He fiercely believes this, and sitting across from him, I can feel the fire of that conviction. Till now, only he and his weapon have witnessed a level of performance beyond his best public efforts. Rio’s a year away and the best bit is that India’s most splendid of winners still feels that there is much more he can reach for.
“Listen, I have said a lot of rubbish,” says Abhinav as we are walking away. “You are not going to print all this, are you?” I smiled: “Of course, I am!”