Ten years ago to the day, Abhinav Bindra became India’s first individual gold medallist at the Olympic Games in Beijing. Two Olympics since Beijing, there have been three silvers across sport but no athlete has been able to break through the final barrier that Bindra did. Bindra has himself competed in two Olympic Games after Beijing, missing the final in London 2012 and finishing fourth in Rio 2016.
Today, Abhinav Bindra, 35, is a generous elder of his sport, freshly appointed a member of the IOC’s athlete commission, sought after as a public speaker and one of Indian sport’s boldest and most progressive thinkers. He is also an entrepreneur, running the most advanced sports science assessment, training and rehab centres in the country. In Bangalore as part of his work with the SAI-Abhinav Bindra Targeting Performance Centre (TPC) at the Dravid Padukone Centre for Sport Excellence, Bindra talked to ESPN about the day he won gold, how he got there and what the medal was to do to him.
Excerpts from the interview:
Before you won gold in Beijing, India had been through six decades of the Olympics without an individual gold. Since then, it has been 10 years without the second. It is obviously not an easy thing to do. On reflection, do you appreciate the significance of that day? Do you wonder how it happened?
I don’t think much about it, but I think it was a culmination of a lot of hard work. It was my dream for the longest time. My life was all about winning a gold medal at the Olympic Games. When I started out as a 12-13 year old, it was a stupid idea. I remember when I went to try to get coached by Heinz Reinkemeier and my coach Gaby, when I went and met them, India was nowhere in shooting. They said, “you want to win a gold at the Olympics? Why don’t you ride an elephant back home?” It was a far-fetched dream, but it was something that I persevered with, and in some ways, deep down, there was this great desperation and obsession to win it. I think that is the real reason why I was able to achieve what I set out to do.
Reflecting back on my career, I was not a talented athlete at all. I had no competitiveness naturally, and was full of anxiety and panic all the time – something that’s certainly not needed for shooting. But yes, I had the ability to work hard and perseverance. And yes, I hope many Indians win more gold medals at the Olympic Games. It’s been 10 years, I was hoping that it would happen sooner. I’m not allergic, so you can all join me in that club.
Why did you want to win the Olympic gold at the age of 12-13? What did you hear about it as a child?
I remember watching the 1992 Barcelona Games on TV, and I watched Limba Ram shoot. That was my first exposure to the Olympic Games. I was very fascinated by the whole aura surrounding the Games. I think it is a great human endeavour and athletes work day in, day out. Nobody’s watching them, but they wake up every morning. Everybody has limitations, but they are trying to overcome them. Then they try and be their best one day in their life. Sometimes it gets over in less than 10 seconds. For somebody like me, it can get over in an hour. But it’s an exciting pursuit. It was a pursuit to be the best that I could be. Perhaps it was a pursuit just to see how far I could go first, how far I could get out of my comfort zone and then overcome limitations that I had.
What are your memories of Beijing today, when you think about it? Do you suddenly remember details?
I don’t think about it at all – in fact, I don’t even have memories of that day. It’s strange, but I think the reason is that when I went into Beijing I was very detached from the outcome. I was a very process-oriented person and I was just immersed in the process of shooting and my skills. I just didn’t have the brain capacity to understand or reflect on anything outside of just the focus on shooting, one shot at a time, and being the best that I could be on every single shot. That was my goal going, and in sport you can never guarantee success. Sport can never be scripted. What I had in my control was to be the best that I could be every single shot. I said ‘if I can manage that in 70 shots, I would have my self-respect’, and at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that counts.
So it’s a blur basically…
I remember shooting the last shot…it was really quick. I remember it because I was aggressive. I went for it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I had the courage to take that risk. I clearly remember the last shot. I came down on the target, I was leaning a little bit to the left, and then I moved into the centre and bang! I shot the shot in under three seconds.
“Inside my body, there’s a volcano ready to erupt.”
From the outside, shooters are standing quietly in a large hall – what does being aggressive mean then? Is it in your head, in your action, or the speed with which you fire?
I think because we are still standing still, it is very difficult for someone from the outside to appreciate what is actually going on – inside my body, there’s a volcano ready to erupt. I have a huge amount of adrenaline. My heart rate is probably 160-170 and I’m just trying to stay as still and calm as possible. You have to be aggressive and you have that window, and the window that I had to shoot that 10.8 was probably less than a tenth of a second. You had to be awake enough to make use of that very, very small window that you have. I think that is aggressiveness, and the aggressiveness required that a shooter has to display.
What do you think the gold medal did for your life? You became more famous once you won it, but what else changed, when you think about it now?
It’s a difficult question. I don’t think I changed personally at all. Post-Beijing, it was a difficult period for me as well. I think I was in the sport at that time for 15-odd years, and I had this one wonderful goal – to win a gold at the Olympic Games, and that’s what I lived for. I dreamed of it, and one fine day I had this lovely circular disc in my pocket, and then I was all ready but I had nowhere to go. I didn’t understand what to do next, and very interestingly, I wanted to retire right after Beijing and I wanted to move on in life. I went on a Vipassana meditation course, 10 days where you don’t speak and meditate. The whole idea behind going was to seek something else and find my path. I went there, and I would meditate for 10 hours a day, and for those 10 days, I did nothing but think about shooting. What my gold medal taught me was that I loved my sport. I loved what I did, and I loved the process of sport. So I think that was the realisation the gold medal gave me. The journey’s been tough, and an athlete’s life is tough. It’s not always fun, and competing is hard. For a nervous person like me, it was even harder. It was a lonely sport, but I had a constant companion with me – my self-doubt. It was tough, but the gold medal gave me that realisation that I loved what I did.
What was the most memorable thing you were told about it from the outside world?
Of course, there was a lot of excitement. I think many people did not understand my reaction post winning, because I really did not react much! I was never a public figure, but some people appreciated my quiet reaction. I liked that, and some people came up to me and said that they appreciated how I reacted. That was pretty nice.
For an introverted person, do you like being recognised today?
Initially, I was absolutely traumatised by the fact. I am very happy not being recognised, but if I do get recognised, I am able to take it better now.
What do shooters come to ask you and what do you tell them?
I think my language has changed tremendously. The way I speak has changed completely – not just to athletes, but even when I am asked to make a speech or give a talk. When I was competing as an athlete, a part of me still had to believe I was good. I had to be a con man, thinking that I was somewhat good. But now that I have retired, and reflect back on it truly, I share my vulnerability with people and that I was ordinary. I think people understand that and appreciate that, because from the outside, sportspersons look like superhuman beings. But in reality, athletes are as ordinary as everybody else. We have our own insecurities and limitations that we are trying to overcome. Just my language has changed, and I am more comfortable exposing my vulnerability. I had to believe that I was good, and I couldn’t speak that language because it would reinforce my negativity, and I was already quite negative.
There’s a Bollywood biopic about you – are you excited about it? Is the actor going to dance?
I am really, really excited about it. You know, I had sold the rights for my autobiography a few years ago. The movie is going to be a loosely-adapted version of the biography, so I am really, really, really looking forward to all the ‘loose’ parts!