Inside the mind of Abhinav Bindra
This story is only being told because, well, Abhinav Bindra tells it himself. In public, randomly, when least expected. Not all of it and its many-splendored goof-ups, but just the single fact. That something said was remembered.
In December 2008, four months after Bindra’s Beijing gold, he presented me with a book. It was called Ways of the Rifle 2009, authored by Bindra, Gaby Buhlman, Heinz Reikenmeier, Maik Eckhardt and Bill Murray (not that Bill Murray), his coaches and associates in Germany. The book was A4 sized, 200-plus pages, a heavy tome of high-quality paper, filled with photographs and diagrams. By then I’d known Bindra for almost ten years and was moved by the gesture. Like Bindra, it was thoughtful, generous, open. Not only had he just won the damn medal we had craved for, he had taken apart his craft and shared it with the world.
The book was packed thick with information, reflective of Bindra’s nerd-level obsession with shooting. I flicked through the pages: trace theory, the last ten seconds, stock adjustment, butt length (no, not what you’re thinking). For the non-shooter, though, it was not exactly a page-turner but Ways of the Rifle 2009 occupied a prominent, weighty position on my bookshelf.
Many months later, when talking about what keeps athletes going, Bindra remembered his Athens Olympics experience and suddenly said, “you’re the one who told me I would win gold in Beijing.” Everything fell to the floor: jaw, stomach, composure. He was right. That bright, sad August afternoon at the Markopoulu Shooting Range on the outskirts of Athens became yesterday.
Bindra is surrounded by family and friends of family, who are trying to console him after a miserable final. When he’d finished third in qualification, carrying points into the final, every Indian’s heart had begun racing. But the final that just ended had been a horrific meltdown for Bindra – an eight (eight! for a shooter is like a sprinter running the Olympic 100m final in 12 seconds), five nines and a seventh-place finish. Our insides were once again twisted by the anguish of Milkha, Usha, Poland, Gursharan flashbacks and the Athens final just added to that list.
I’m hovering on the fringes of the Bindra group, to take in the details, offer comfort and extract quotes. Bindra is asked if he wants to eat something. “No” he says, with a poker face, “I’m busy digesting my nines.” I’m struggling to keep the guffaw down, and for the first time, he smiles, his black humour hitting home. Later, Bindra is deconstructing the final and exhales in resignation, “I’m fed up. I’m done. I’m going to retire.”
That’s when it comes, my scattershot, auto-pilot response. “No chance...as if...what nonsense you’re talking... You’re going to win gold in Beijing.” That statement did not come from any insight or a dispassionate assessment of skills or career paths. When sports journalists find themselves within the impact radius of an athlete’s despair, we say these things because we feel we must. To stop their spiral into negativity. To try lift off them, even if by a little, the crush of disappointment they feel. To coax their minds away from the slipped opportunity and give them a chance to draw a new breath. We never know if or how those words carry. About five years later, Bindra reminds me that sometimes they do.
Poleaxed by the recollection, I don’t tell him that mine was a clumsy response, an attempt to make him feel better. Instead, the prediction is retro-fitted: I glibly say, I had only been stating facts, reading the tea leaves, so to speak. It was so obvious, you’d made steady progress every Olympics: narrowly missed the final in Sydney 2000 as a 16-year-old, comfortably made the Athens 2004 final before the indigestible nines. Naturally when Beijing came around, I said, you would be ready. All that time I’m thrown that he remembered that one thing he heard amongst the hundreds of things that must have been said to him in consolation on an eminently forgettable day.
Half-spooked, half-delighted, I say, “You absolutely must sign that book on rifle shooting you gave me.” Bindra’s droll response burns up the phone line, “You really haven’t been through it, have you?” Self. Foot. Shoot. Ways of the Rifle 2009 has stayed on the shelf for months in what must be an enormously piqued silence. Bindra’s inscription is to be found on the opening spread of the book itself and it reads: “You kept my dream alive, we got our FIRST.”
Bindra is on the line as I read those words for the first time. I will be overwhelmed later but right now he must be profusely apologised to and heartfully thanked. He is laughing. This is more than ten years ago but it remains a memory that is as fresh as it is powerful.
That and the fact for everything I’ve ever written or said across three decades as a sports journalist or will do in the future, nothing will ever match this for where it landed.