After 16 long years spent chasing a dream, Abhinav Bindra wants to enjoy the sport he obsessively pursued for more than half his life. This desire has come at the peak of his career, not the end, as it did for Sunil Gavaskar.
At 28, Bindra is at a stage where he can make some choices that were not available to him earlier. “Obsessed to the point of being unhealthy in mind and body,” Bindra’s single-minded pursuit of the sport of shooting earned him the prize he “desperately” wanted—an Olympic gold medal in Beijing in 2008. But gold came at a price—of being blinded to the world around him.
He says his mindset has changed now. “Before Beijing I was desperate; and because of that desperation I never really enjoyed my sport. This time I want to enjoy the process, and that’s my big internal goal,” says Bindra, who is expected in Mumbai on Thursday for the India International Sports Summit.
The first step in that process was to kill the ego that came with being the Olympic champion, an attempt to cleanse himself of its burden. “I destroyed whatever ego I had by shooting badly in some competitions. That was an important part of the plan; then came the turning point, when I realized I would have to do better. So the other ego was born—an understanding that I can’t be shooting this bad.”
His first medal after the Olympics, in the 10m air rifle category at an inter-shoot event in the Netherlands, came in February, a year and a half after Beijing. In the last three months, he has shot three scores of 596 out of 600—at the RIAC Cup in Luxembourg in December, IWK Grand Prix in Munich in January, and in the Netherlands. He says that’s the best he has ever averaged over a stretch, and he has been shooting since the age of 12.
Resetting the focus: Bindra is preparing to defend his 10m air rifle title at the World Championship in Munich in July. Manoj Patil/Hindustan Times
Despite the changed perception of shooting—as something that cannot sustain him for life—his recent scores show that his motivation has not deserted him. “It’s a passion, not a way of livelihood. I am 28 and have done nothing in my life apart from shooting. It’s an important part of life but not the end of the world for me. Some would say I am losing focus but I don’t see it like that,” he says.
This “addiction” to shooting has led him to train 9 hours a day, including running 7-8km, living in Europe for a major part of the year, trying millions of variations in training and bringing more science and technology into it to keep fresh an otherwise “boring and monotonous sport”.
As he prepares for the World Championship in Munich in July, where he will defend his 10m air rifle title, Bindra is again searching for that inner strength which made him India’s only individual Olympic gold medallist. He is off to a Vipassana meditation course because he likes to do “anything that gives you a feel-good factor”.
“I like activities which bring me closer to my inner willpower. When somebody takes out a knife and stabs you, you will draw in your deepest reserves to save yourself. It is absent from normal day life, which is what I need to find for competing. I was in that frame of mind when I was shooting for my life in Beijing. If I had not shot well, I would have died or something.”
It all makes sense now—his expressionless face flashing across television channels in India after he won that gold, the lack of emotion glaring in the backdrop of the scale of achievement. Bindra says the medal was a culmination of years of work, so the end result got buried somewhere within him. “There is so much more that went into it and the whole journey was important. Winning the medal was almost depressing for me because it was the end of that journey. It was an anticlimax to the climax. It was draining. After the last shot, I was happy but there was nothing left in me (to show).”
The euphoria and accolades that followed his Olympic win made him a satisfied man. Even though he says it was a selfish, self-driven goal and achievement, it was always meant to be for his country. But his success also brought the now predictable conflict of egos with administrators of the sport. The National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) dropped him from the team for the Commonwealth Shooting event in February in Delhi, which resulted in a furious exchange of words. Newspaper reports quoted him as saying he wanted to quit the sport altogether in disgust.
In retrospect, he says the face-off was “fun”. “I was miserable for two weeks but I never said I wanted to quit. It bothered me for a long time and I have been trying to solve this for six-seven months but it’s not going anywhere. But it gave me the purpose to do well. I will never quit shooting, I will shoot till the time I can see.”
He is currently working on two pet projects. One is to make the sport more accessible to people who cannot otherwise afford it. He wants to manufacture guns in India, so that instead of importing a rifle for Rs2 lakh, people can buy it for Rs20,000. “It will not bring a gold medal but is good enough for people to start, for the sport to grow at the school level.”
Second is the celebrity column he writes for Hindustan Times (published by HT Media Ltd, which also publishes Mint) to change people’s “inaccurate perception” of him and to highlight his sport.
The perception of him being an introvert, though, is true. He says the nature of his sport has made him a “lonely” person. “I am not a positive person; I am realistic, and that’s dangerous in sport. I need people around me who need to be positive,” says Bindra.
He credits his parents with doing just that: “I wanted to quit a million times and it could have been easy for my parents to say move on to something else. Every time I did badly, they gave me the positive push I needed.”
Bindra says he would like another gold medal from the Olympics to “hang on my wall. (But) if I don’t get it, it’s not a big deal.”