The pellet weighs 5.3 milligrams, it travels at 175 metres per second, it is manufactured by a company called Qiang Yuan. Each pellet (he fired 70 in Beijing) is a tiny, hourglass-shaped piece of lead, though when it emerges from his gun it turns into some minor masterpiece of feel and technique, patience and accuracy. The pellet flies, literally, across 10m, to a bullseye that’s 0.5mm across, somewhere between a pea and a pinhead. But this August, Abhinav Bindra’s pellets metaphorically flew much further, for they took India, finally, across that outrageous distance that separates potential from performance.
11 August: Bindra wins India’s first ever individual Olympic gold. Desmond Boylan / Reuters
Gold is the colour of winning and as old Californians will tell you, getting it takes a madness. It’s a hunger, it’s an ache, and the gymnast Svetlana Khorkina once explained it, saying: “I want to win a gold medal as much as I want to mother my own child.” India knows this ache. As this year began, 15 Olympics had passed since 1947, 61 years of individual fourth places, bronzes, silver, 61 years of that unseemly, if incorrect, question about one billion and no Olympic champion (how many of a billion have a place to play? But that’s another story), 61 years of a nation waiting for an Olympic hero to call its own.
He, the keeper of promises, he knows about this gulf, this separation between owning talent and using it. In a recent speech, which he takes months to craft, and is more thoughtful, more passionate than anything I’ve possibly heard from a 26-year-old sportsman, he says: ”When the rest of the world talks about Indian sport they use the word potential, potential, potential.” And maybe he was just tired of this word, tired of the insinuation that India, and thus he, can’t win, and so he fired India into the future. And immediately change was evident, for now India belonged. In the Beijing press room, a bunch of Dutch writers give a few Indian journalists, who had become new friends, a small ovation. This is a shot heard around the world.
But sometimes you wonder, once the media’s gone back to coddling Dhoni, and shooting ranks as a story below Ishant’s barber’s favourite hair gel, does anything really change, does the medal still resonate, or is a piece of metal out of sight in Mama’s closet really out of mind? In late November, I email Bindra a question, “Do you find that fellow shooters are inspired by your gold, that they think, damn, if he’s done it, so can I, as if you’ve broken some barrier?”
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
He replies: “I think so and I really hope so, not just with the shooters but all Olympic athletes in India. I’ll give you my example. When Colonel Rathore won silver, I said to myself that I will not settle for anything else but gold. It was inspiring! I see that change in the mindset of Indian athletes, nobody talks about silver or bronze now, everyone wants gold. That’s a huge breakthrough because everybody has set their standards higher than ever before. Every one is aiming higher than ever before!!”
Rathore’s medal (a first silver) was vital, Bindra’s gold is greater proof, and not just to shooters. In tubelit municipality gyms where boxers move to the music of rain drumming on tin roofs, in small-town badminton courts whose lines have faded into the cement, in suburbs where tin glasses of milk crusted with malai quiver next to sweaty akharas, in sleepy district ovals where grass grows through the bricks and evening dust softly explodes with every runner’s step, young athletes must know now that it can be done, that struggle has a finish line, that Bindra like them was just a boy with a dream. If even one of them thinks this, runs faster, rises earlier, it’s change.
It’s astonishing what a tiny pellet does, how it pierces scepticism, how it carries hope to distant places, how it can change (hopefully) how India looks at winning. Bindra’s telling us you can’t win through luck, prayer, handouts, amateurism, but through professionalism, by a trust in science, by having a plan, by a willingness to go half insane searching for excellence, by turning his mind inside out (mapping his brain), his life upside down, looking for every infinitesimal edge that would take him past not just the next guy but the best guy. Sure, he has affluent parents and an office of coaches, but you can’t buy desire.
His pellets... Well, they’re a story in themselves, of perfection pursued, of the microscopic detail he attended to while trying to find greatness, like drilling holes in his shooting jacket to reduce vibration in its trampoline-like material or adjusting the size of the soles of his shoes to fit different ranges.
Pellets matter, he educated me two months ago, the quality of ammunition helps you shoot more accurately and even different batches react differently to a gun. A pellet makes a hole of 4.5mm in a target. So he puts his gun in a vice, and shoots 10 German pellets at the target and finds that the grouping of shots is over 6.5mm. Then he takes Chinese pellets, which he always believed might be good simply because Chinese shooters always dominated, and tests them and finds they have a grouping of only 5.4mm. In a sport of, well millimetres, this matters. It’s hard to get the pellets out of China, but he won’t quit. He hunts down the manufacturer, he gets his pellets.
It’s a story of fastidiousness that might impress you, a story that might alter the way you look at nerds with air guns, might revise your opinion of shooting as a sport (dull it ain’t), might amend your view of how desperately far athletes go to win gold. And if that happens, even one part of it, Abhinav Bindra’s pellets have done their job. They have become an hourglass- shaped, 5.3-milligram agent of change.
Rohit Brijnath is a sports writer for The Straits Times.