Don’t look now, but this 24-year-old who looks like a cover boy for an accountancy magazine, who pursues a sport where stillness is a virtue and muscles can get in the way, whose rare moment of recognition came from, get this, a Thai airlines purser (“Hey, you’re the shooter’’), is possibly India’s best chance of a medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
But don’t be fooled by the way Abhinav Bindra looks, not even for a millisecond, which is all it takes for him to send an air rifle bullet, from 33-odd feet, into a bullseye that’s about the size of your shirt button. Feel free to applaud.
Don’t be fooled by the way Abhinav Bindra speaks. If you listen carefully, amid the technical talk of “trigger pressure” and “stability”, you can hear his passion leak into the conversation. He says words we don’t expect from a shooter, such as “arty” and “feel” and “guts”. Maybe we just don’t know a damn thing about shooters.
After attending two Olympics, and 11 years of squeezing triggers, one year ago Bindra became the first Indian to win gold at a world championship. One year from now, he wants to become the first Indian to win an individual Olympic gold.
Olympic athletes arrange their lives in four-year cycles, a monkish, mad, uplifting existence where every day they strive to get better so that they can be at their best on the day. It’s terrifying. Bindra is investing four years for an event that is done in about two hours.
So many things can go wrong that day, which is why Bindra arises every morning and chases his own private perfection. “Every day there is a new problem, a new challenge,” he says. “What is fascinating is the journey, working on all the factors to get that perfection. My biggest joy is in the struggle.”
If his shoulder isn’t perfectly stable, it’s over. If his breathing is erratic, the dream’s gone. His trigger pressure is 45g; if it’s humid, it becomes lighter. It matters because you have to squeeze the trigger at the right moment, at the right pressure. Or, goodbye medal.
It’s why Bindra says “it’s an arty sport, a feel sport”. You have to “feel good with your position, your body”. But here’s the thing. Even though he’s a “feeling-oriented shooter”, he knows “you’ve got to win even when not feeling good”. Rhetorically, he asks: “What if I wake up at the Olympics, on the day, and don’t feel good? So I have to train like that.”
Shooting is a still, mostly silent sport, but his ardour makes it come alive. In qualification, he fires 60 shots (10 in the final), and each shot is a battle, he insists, for sometimes you raise your gun and put it down 10 times before shooting, waiting for that moment when everything feels just right to fire.
In an Olympic final, the heart accelerates, and the gun shakes, and adrenalin gushes and, unlike a physical sport, there is no outlet for it, so you have to be patient, wait, till the heart slows and the adrenalin abates. He’s trying to tell you, this is an art, understand? Yes.
Bindra says he is not consumed by Beijing, focused only on the process of improving. He has evolved as a shooter, describing himself, with a chuckle, as “more detached, more stone-hearted”. But he wasn’t always like this, he was obsessive about winning, an emotional warrior. Time has changed him. And, perhaps, so did Athens.
In 2004, at the Athens Games, he got his heart torn out. He broke the Olympic record in qualifying, but shot so poorly in the eight-man final it astonished him. Later, a coach goes back to the range, to position No.3 where Bindra shot from, and finds the floor wobbly, finds it being fixed for the next final. Too late.
Bindra calls Athens “tragic” and says, honestly, painfully, “Athens bothered me for a long time”. He breathes. “But that’s life, everything’s not fair always.” Now, he insists, Athens is forgotten. At the world championships last year, he found himself, ominously, again at position No.3. Athens came flooding back, but he wore the pressure and won.
But perhaps Athens will finally be interred in Beijing. Not with a medal. But by a performance that he is striving and struggling and searching for yesterday, today, tomorrow. A performance that proves he can be perfect even on an imperfect day.
(Send your feedback to Rohit at email@example.com)