Abhinav Bindra at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Abhinav Bindra: A champion looks back at who he was

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The athlete as backwards prophet is the fashion. What would you tell your younger self, we ask? Write a letter to him, please. And so greying, considered heroes give wise advice to the reckless, obsessive, dynamic creatures they once were.

He, the Olympic champion, isn’t the looking-back kind. But we want to examine the bones of athletic journeys and younger athletes want to peer down the roads he walked. And this is when he’ll say repeatedly that yes, sure, he reached several goals yet he “failed miserably”.

Failed?

In “achieving my fullest potential?”

But wait, what was the problem?

“My lack of balance.”

Abhinav Bindra is talking about something beyond just mere winning. About winning well. About courage of a form we don’t always acknowledge. Courage to take days off, to do less, to not be consumed by sport, to not get imprisoned in the unhealthy grip of competition.

“Why did I have self-doubt?” he says. “Because all my eggs were in one basket. Because my self-worth depended on where my name was in the ranking list. I didn’t have the courage to let go.”

“My most successful years, in terms of quality, were in the US in 2001 when I was a student-athlete. I had only so many hours to train. I was challenged intellectually, I was challenged outside the field of play. I went on hikes. Even if I didn’t win in Athens (Olympics, 2004), I was at my best then. And it was because of balance. If everything rests on one pillar and there’s an earthquake, everything shakes.”

Then he became obsessive, his life a narrow pursuit of gold, and ironically it’s what he got. But if he stayed balanced, could he have been even better? A career never answers every question.

It’s 16 years since Bindra won 10m air rifle gold in Beijing and since it’s Olympic year, he’s a fair subject for another interrogation. After all, he’s not the athlete I knew. He has a taste for occasional Vesper martinis—shaken, of course—but, to put it politely, there’s nothing much else about him which says James Bond. Except the weapon. The last gun he has left from 22 years of shooting is a gold rifle presented to him by Walther, the gun-maker to 007. The other guns have gone, some pellets remain and a few jackets. His athletic skin has been shed. Now he’s someone who used to be talented.

Singer Jon Bon Jovi recently spoke about buying back his first guitar. Then he played it, for it’s what musicians do. But athletes let go. Exhausted and played out, they don’t look back. They might clutch on to a little memorabilia, as Rahul Dravid has with a few bats and gloves, but as the Indian cricket coach said, they’re “in some boxes that I haven’t opened in years”.

But didn’t he, batting engineer, ever step back into the nets, just you know to remember the sound and sensation of timing? Like strumming an old guitar?

“Never hit a ball in the nets after I stopped,” he replied.

Athletes often stay in sport, in some form, for it’s all they know. Dravid turned mentor. Bindra works with the International Olympic Committee on mental health and in safeguarding athletes from harassment and abuse, sits on the board of Bajaj Auto and has opened 15 hi-tech centres, some used for athletic high performance and others used by patients in hospitals for rehabilitation.

But dearest to him is his foundation, through which he runs Olympic Values Education Programmes (ask and you’ll get monthly reports and sermons on sport and gender equality), supports athletes and is currently involved in an environmental restoration forest project in Odisha.

Becoming great demands selfishness, no time for anything or anyone but a dream. But Bindra’s new life has an unselfishness which appeals to the wiser him. Once he told stories of waking at 3 am and practising in his underwear. Now he talks delightedly of meeting a 14-year-old Adivasi swimmer in Odisha, where he has a sports science centre, who “very enthusiastically discussed his VO2 max values with me”.

The shooter shuffles at questions about his past, as if it’s a country he doesn’t want to return to. We dwell on the athlete’s glory days more than they care to do. We ache to rewind, they move forward. We see gold, they remember aching swarms of butterflies.

But he must miss something, some element of his younger crazy self, something so powerful which he still carries with him. He pauses. “When you’re an athlete you’re so incredibly bloody minded and I haven’t found that.”

He laughs.

“It may come back.”

Mostly it doesn’t, for life rarely gets so intensely distilled again. The roar of ambition settles and focus fades like a painting left in the car. But with him at least a small part of what he built as an athlete remains. His strength.

His father hasn’t been well, a stress more penetrating than anything sport brings. But he’s befriended stress and even now he responds accordingly. “I kind of go into competition mode. To not get overwhelmed with emotion, to look at things clinically and find appropriate solutions”.

He says he only remembers “two-three shots” from a long career and I smell gentle exaggeration. But hey, he’s the athlete. Maybe, he laughs, it’s so few “because there’s a lot of trauma attached to competing. Part of my brain doesn’t want to go back to it.”

He used to train in Dortmund with coaches Gaby Buhlmann and Heinz Reinkemeier and still meets them but always in a neutral city. In eight years since he retired, he’s never returned to that German city because it’s where the butterflies in his stomach used to play havoc every day.

“It’s taken me eight years to heal. It takes a lot out of you”.

And yet that Olympic shot, the last one, the 10.8 he fired to win in 2008, that stays like, well, a first kiss.

“I close my eyes and I can feel it,” he says.

Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold. He posts @rohitdbrijnath.

 

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