Ability to suffer and endure pain led me to my goal, says Abhinav Bindra
Ten years to this day, India achieved the biggest award for its athletes’ perseverance when Abhinav Bindra shot gold at the 2008 Olympic Games at Beijing.
There is no saying where or when that moment of magic will come again. Will it be Tokyo 2020 or Paris 2024, or will we have to wait longer? Till that happens, let’s cherish the moment of pure and unadulterated joy a bespectacled and grim-looking 25-year-old gave to the nation.
In an interview, Bindra looked back on that day and more. Excerpts:
Q: Before that historic day, you had been part of two Olympic Games. You broke the world record in 2004 but a medal eluded you. How was the journey from 2004 to 2008? How were you able to turn that disappointment into success?
A: I think 2004 was an extremely disappointing moment in my career. I was doing really well but the unstable floor below my position at the range upset my rhythm. It was heartbreaking. But time was the best healer and I got my energy and motivation back for 2008. The role of my family and my coaches was very important and they remained very positive.
Athens (which hosted the 2004 Olympics) also taught me to remain detached from the outcome. I became a process-oriented athlete; one who believed in giving it his best shot and not bothering about the outcome. When I went to Beijing, my goal was to do the best with every shot. The outcome was not important, the process was. That change only happened because of my Athens experience… that detachment came from there.
Q: What changed in your training between 2004 and 2008 that helped you achieve your goal?
A: What really changed in those four years was that I started delving into the minutest detail in my training. That unstable floor at Athens taught me to take everything terrible in my stride. I started going into every possible detail in my training, and there were a thousand details. I glued rubber from Ferrari tyres on my shoes as some research had shown that it had the highest anti-skid properties.
The hall in Beijing was massive. In India and elsewhere, the competition rooms are small. A hall, as the one in Beijing, has a great impact on reference point and orientation. You get lost in a big hall. So, I hired a marriage hall for training. Basically, I tried to incorporate every possible variable in my training.
Q: It must’ve been a difficult phase for you in the run-up to the 2006 World Championships at Zagreb where you won gold, with the nagging back problem almost putting a stop to your career. How tough was it to motivate yourself?
A: My mantra was simple, I was willing to suffer. The ability to endure and accept hardships became my mantra. My coaches also told me that the ability to suffer for your goal was the key. When you accept pain and the ability to endure pressure, the goal becomes clear. A pressure situation is not a happy feeling. That pain and suffering made my goal pretty clear.
Q: When you started out as a 13-14 year old, was the goal clear that you wanted to win the Olympic gold?
A: It was always my biggest dream to win the Olympic gold. That’s the goal I set very early. At 13-14, it seemed a distant dream. But it began taking shape when at 17 I was competing and doing well. There were failures along the way, but the ability to remain honest and dedicated helped me keep the goal in sight.
Q: The Beijing Games brought another twist with your rifle sight being tampered with. How tough was it to calm your nerves, given that there were moments left for the finals to begin?
A: I cannot be 100 per cent sure (whether it was tampering). But looking back, it was a blessing in disguise. It helped me focus even more. Initially, it was nerve-wracking with only a few minutes to get the rifle in order. But I did not give up and ended up shooting the best 10 shots in my life. The way I responded, the timing, the technique… they were the 10 best shots of my life. The incident took my concentration to the next level. My goal was to shoot every shot to the best of my ability.
Q: Ten years down the line, do you get goose pimples thinking about that episode?
A: As I said, I have no attachment to the outcome. The gold, or that episode, doesn’t give me goose pimples. But the way I shot, gives me happiness.
Q: What were your emotions after the achievement? We saw only a calm Abhinav barely managing a smile…
A: I think my reaction after the victory was that of satisfaction and fulfillment. I was drained and tired; it (the competition) had drained every minor part of my battery. There was pure satisfaction. The greatest thrill was to be able to deliver under extreme pressure and I had achieved that. As I said, I get completely detached from the outcome, so I may not have reacted that way. I was just so focused being in the present.
Q: What was the motivation behind your book, “A Shot at History”?
A: I wanted to share an honest account of my journey. I was not a talented athlete but had the ability to work hard. I was just a very ordinary person, with all the insecurities others face. The motivation behind the book was to present a very honest and unadulterated account of myself.
Q: For someone who dedicated 22 years of his life to shooting, calling it quits would have been a tough call…
A: By the time I finally quit, I had a good amount of clarity on what I was doing. I had a fair idea of whatever little I had diminishing. I could still be shooting; I could still make the team. But, frankly, it was all about accountability. The country would have asked questions of me, had I failed. I failed in Rio; I thought it was time to give others a chance. It was just the right time to move on.
Q: What do you think should be the path the young generation of talented shooters should take to become Olympic medal hopefuls?
A: We have a lot of young people coming through. It’s a matter of time before we have another Olympic champion. Athletes should remain honest, brutally honest, about their goal. The Olympics come every four years but aspiring medallists need to wake up with the same amount of enthusiasm day in and day out as if they were competing in the Olympics. Youngsters aspire more now than when I was competing.
Q: After every Games, we talk about a blueprint for the next edition. Do you think it is leading us anywhere?
A: Frankly, it’s about having a long-term plan for grassroots. But working at the grassroots is not the most glamorous thing. People want instant gratification. I would say that persisting with talent hunt and remaining committed to the programme for 8-10 years will definitely give results. We also need to set structures (scouting, training etc) in place. Success can be built on a strong structure. Governments may come and go, but the structures built should not be reliant or dependent on individuals.
Q: Do you feel private endeavours help in the growth of Olympic sport?
A: Private organisations have done an admirable job. But we cannot be solely reliant on them. We have to reach a position where the system provides for the needs of the athletes. That’s where the real change will happen. The Mittal Champions Trust helped me a lot. But if we become reliant only on them, Indian sport will head nowhere. It is the system that should produce athletes.