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‘It’s completely crazy,the extent I went to pursue my Olympic dream’

Abhinav Bindra,the only Indian to win an individual gold medal at the Olympics,tells Express staffers in an Idea Exchange moderated by National Sports Editor Kunal Pradhan how he won the medal and how it changed his life for ever

January 4, 2009 9:49:33 pm

•Kunal Pradhan: Perhaps for the umpteenth time but with a little more distance now,would you like to recount the Olympics gold medal moment and your last shot of 10.8?

When I went into the final round,I had a lot of trouble in my sighting shot. We have about five minutes to train,which is basically a formality,but in my first shot,my sighting shot was a 4. I really don’t know what happened. I shot my final in a complete state of shock,and I am still to get out of it.

Going into the last shot,I knew I had shot really well until then and I knew I needed a good shot to probably get a medal,and because I shot the entire final in a state of shock,I had to really dig into my reserves. I had trained a lot for that final shot. I had strategy which I had put into place months before. My decision was to shoot a really quick shot,to shoot a really aggressive shot so I went for it. It could’ve easily gone the other way but I trained hard for it and I’m glad that it went in.

Then I was a little scared because I didn’t know how well I had done and I thought there might be a shoot-off. I knew I had probably won a medal — I didn’t know which colour. So I looked back at my coach and she told me there was no shoot-off. Then I walked back to her,I was too scared to look at the scoreboard. I was hoping for the best,I was hoping it was enough to win gold but I wasn’t too sure. Then she told me that I had won. I had a sense of complete fulfillment.

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•Kunal Pradhan: So when you raised your arm after the final shot,it was for scoring 10.8,not for the gold?

It was to shoot that good a final in that state of shock. When I started the final I had no chance. I probably had a faulty rifle. I was two points behind the leader,which takes quite a lot of catching up to do. I had nothing to lose so I decided to be aggressive. After that last shot,I was overcome by excitement.

•Kunal Pradhan: When people said that your initial reaction was a little muted,the reality was that you didn’t even know you had won the gold and so we had misjudged your initial reaction.

It’s probably hard to understand but it was also because I had worked for that moment for many years and my only goal,my only dream,was to win a gold medal at the Olympics. Of Just thinking and dreaming of winning a gold medal at the Olympics would give me goose-bumps. Ironically,when I actually did it,I was completely empty. The reason probably was that I had to dig so deep into my reserves and it took so much energy out of me to pull it off that I was completely finished after the last shot. I had no energy to talk to the media,I had no energy to show any excitement. It was all over. Suddenly,I had nothing more to do. If I hadn’t won a medal,I would’ve come back and started training,had something to look forward to. But ironically I won and that’s it,game over.

•Kunal Pradhan: What will it be now? Is it the prospect of another gold medal that drives you to stay with the sport and begin work again?

I’m at the crossroads. It’s very confusing because for 14-15 years I did nothing else but train for a medal at the Olympics and train for the gold medal and I never thought about a millimetre after that. So really it’s a very hard time for me.

•Deepak Narayanan: In sports like football or cricket,you practice until instinct takes over. In shooting you’ve got a lot of time to think,what thoughts go through your mind in that time?

It’s terrible. Your mind has all the time to wander for negative thoughts and you have to just strain to block them out. Shooting is like other sports — it becomes instinctive. There are processes towards it,but in the end,you train so much that in the pressure-cooker situation you just go by your instincts.

•Deepak Narayanan: So did it help to be in shock?

I had done a lot of mental training which also involved a lot of distraction training. I noticed that when my back was completely against the wall,I did my best and I could dig into those reserves. I had absolutely no choice but to focus really hard and for me it was a complete blessing in disguise.

•Suanshu: Do you think Olympic sports can receive the kind of patronage cricket receives?

Olympic sports are completely state-run,completely funded by the government of India. There is quite a lot of money spent on training athletes and on Olympic sports. But I don’t think it’s enough and sponsorship in different Olympic sports is an important step. That is an initiative somebody needs to take,somebody needs to have that vision. Cricket is a sport that we all love and it attracts a lot of sponsorship but I think the BCCI can survive losing a couple of sponsorships. They have enough.

•Kunal Pradhan: In the end,does it all come down to the money or is there something more that is needed?

It’s been a great year for Indian sport. In Olympic disciplines we have a lot of talent. But one important missing element is support at the grassroots level. I find that most of the support,most of the funding directed towards Indian sport goes to the elite — nothing reaches the grassroots level.

We’re talking of the 2012 Olympics but we don’t have a clear plan for 2012 as yet. Other countries are already preparing for 2020. So we need a vision,or a plan,we need a dream,we need to start small,maybe five medals at 2012.

We dream of maybe hosting an Olympic Games in India at some stage. But what is more important is to have a parallel dream to see our athletes succeed at these Games. That is more important than hosting these events. The Commonwealth Games in 2010 will be great to create a little bit of excitement for sports and to get a little bit of sports culture in India. But it won’t do anything more than that. It’ll create this great infrastructure in one city,Delhi,which only the elite athletes will have access to,but it does not do anything to groom our future champions. We need infrastructure on a smaller scale all across India. Things can start to happen only with a vision. But the passion seems to be missing.

•Kunal Pradhan: That viewpoint is not going to be very popular with the officials.

I have nothing against those who run Indian sport. My thing is that everybody should be excited about what they do,should show some passion and show some eagerness to get some results and improve our country’s performance in all these big events.

If should have a ‘Project Five Medals’ or whatever,and work towards that in a planned systematic way. Unless there is clarity we’re going nowhere. I think when we have a clear plan,a clear vision it’s just easier to get the results.

•Saikat Sarkar: You have plans of setting up 50 sports schools in five years. Will these include general sports or only shooting?

This 50 in five years I’m hearing for the first time but yes,I have plans. The idea is to have schools,regular educational institutions with a lot of infrastructure for sports,Olympic sports especially. What is most important is to get the right know-how in terms of coaching,in terms of the experts at that grassroots level. What I see in Indian sport,even cricket,is that our foundation is weak and that is because at that grassroots level,children have no access to the right know-how. More and more young people need access to the right facilities,need to be encouraged towards sports — only then we will have a wider base of talent.

•Daksh Panwar: Can we hope to win medals not because of the system but in spite of it?

It’ll dry up if there’s no vision. Some really talented athlete will succeed but we need to have the vision. 1.25 billion people and three medals in an Olympics is pretty poor. It took us so long to get a gold medal. I was happy to win the gold but I was also embarrassed that it took our country so long to win one.

•Daksh Panwar: In your case how much of a help was the system?

I am the first to acknowledge that I did get some funding from the government but in my case,I had a clarity of the situation — it was like an Olympic project which my family and I would start four years before the Olympic Games and try to ensure that I work in a way which sees a constant improvement of my game and ensures that I am ready,mentally,physically,tactically and technically.

•Uthra Ganesan: Even if the system decides we need 20 medals by 2012,does just talking about it really help because in the end sports are not a priority in India.

The vision of five medals is about how we are going to win those five medals. In shooting,for instance,we should identify a large group of shooters now and start giving them coaching and right amount of technical coaching and psychological training — have a complete training plan for them. We don’t even have ammunition at this moment.

We need to completely revamp the system,our athletes need financial security and until and unless some sort of security comes into place it’s very difficult for an athlete to do nothing else but train and get nothing in return.

•Vinay Sitapati: India’s cricket tour of Pakistan has been cancelled. Do you think that sporting ties in times like these are particularly important?

Sports should not be mixed with politics,but this is a special case. I think it’s so tense at the moment,it’s probably the right decision. Personally I would agree with the decision.

•Charmy: Tell us when you decided to become a shooter and why.

Why I still don’t know but I decided to get into the sport when I was 12 or 13. I used to be in boarding school where I was completely unhappy so my family pulled me out and moved to Chandigarh where I went to a day school. I needed a hobby or a pastime and I was always interested in shooting. A family friend introduced me to my first coach in Chandigarh,Colonel Dhillon. I went to him that was it.

But I’d like to make an important point: when I was in boarding school I hated sport,I wanted to do nothing with sport but my parents always encouraged me. I remember I used to cry a lot in boarding school,so my father used to write me a letter everyday and one thing common to those letters was that he said studies didn’t matter but I should go and play. We need more parents encouraging our children to play sports.

•Dhiraj Nayyar: What is the purpose of sport in terms of a nation? How does it matter if India doesn’t win gold medals? We have achieved so many other things.

Sport is an important part of nation-building. For most countries sport is very important. The Olympics is an opportunity for every country to go and show how powerful they are and sport is a medium to showcase that. For example China won its first Olympic gold medal in 1984. They won 100-plus medals in Beijing.

Maybe it’s not that important in our lives,maybe we lack a sporting culture. But it is very important that we improve our track record in global sports because it gives the country a lot of recognition. When you win a gold medal at the Olympics,when you hear your national anthem or see your country’s flag go up it gives you a lot of pride.

•Dhiraj Nayyar: Do you see yourself as Abhinav Bindra or Abhinav Bindra,Indian?

Completely India. I think nobody ever recognized this point,but after the Olympics many people said I didn’t cry on the podium and I didn’t make a big noise,but I did something in my own way which I felt comfortable with to make a statement. At the victory ceremony,they call out the country’s name first. When they called out India,I stood up,not when my name was called. That was my gesture,but nobody noticed it.

•Kunal Pradhan: When you came back to India you said I’m left feeling empty. Did you think about how your every word would be received here or did you say what you felt?

Whatever I said and I continue to say is completely how I feel. And whatever I felt,that was what I wanted to portray. I didn’t want to be the actor and just lie and showcase something I didn’t feel.

•Shailaja Bajpai: Take us through a day in the life of Abhinav Bindra and how you prepared for these Olympics?

For the last 15 years I’ve done nothing but prepare for this. What I did was I trained for about 7-8 hours everyday,that would include 4-5 hours of shooting and then I would spend about two hours in physical training. I would spend at least an hour,and prior to the Olympics,2-3 hours,doing a lot of mental training. So I would do at least eight hours of training and the rest of the day I would be thinking about my training,or thinking about my sport — every breath,every moment of my life. I was completely obsessed by it. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep,and I would wake up at 3 am and I would go train. It was completely crazy the extent I went to pursue my dream. I feel fortunate that the hard work yielded this result,but it was my whole life,I would eat sleep drink shooting. That’s been my life.

•Kunal Pradhan: Do you feel you lost out some aspects of life? Not going out,partying with your friends?

The journey was exciting,something I would never ever trade for anything else. If somebody tells me,‘if you do this,your shooting would improve 20 percent’ I’ll run out of your office right now and get down to it. But I’ve never thought that I’ve missed out on something. The journey was very exciting,more than the destination.

•Dhiraj Nayyar: Is there a case for our government to take over the so-called autonomous sports bodies that we have,because most of them are run by politicians in any case and they’re not accountable to anyone?

I think it’s very important that when you’re running a sport,you have a comprehensive knowledge about that sport. You need to have the day to day running of your athletes,which is a role which must be done by a professional or by a person who really has comprehensive knowledge about the sport and has a clear plan on how he wants to model his athletes’ development over the years.

•Smita Aggarwal: With gold already in your kitty,how have you started preparing for the London Olympics,or is it too early to ask?

Too early to ask. I never looked beyond winning a gold medal. If somebody had told me 15 years ago,you’ll get an Olympic gold medal,I wouldn’t ever want anything more than that. I would be more than happy to quit and go away. It has been an overwhelming experience to win this medal. If I was in another country,and we were wining around 40 gold medals it would’ve made my life easier because nobody would’ve really cared what I did and I could just move on and go back to training the next day. But it’s been different in India. I have started the process in my head and let’s see how it goes.

•Gayatri: You are the distributor of Walther guns in India?

I am their sole distributor but I haven’t sold a single gun,so I haven’t done that well. Walther is the manufacturer who makes my rifles. I’ve been using them for the last 10 years. I am trying to do things to make my sport a little more affordable to more people in India. At the moment,you can’t just walk into a gun shop and get an air gun and get started off in the sport. So I am trying to,in partnership with Walther,to develop a special model of an air rifle for India,which would be much,much cheaper,Presently an Olympic air rifle costs around Rs 2 lakh . We’re trying to develop an air rifle with Walther that would cost about Rs 20,000-25,000. That would probably help get more people into the sport. But there are still issues about licensing and whether I can actually import a large quantity of air rifles into India.

•Kunal Pradhan: You have your own range in your house. How long has it been since you’ve been to one of the public ranges in India,and how difficult is it in comparison for your colleagues?

My “air-conditioned” range is talked about quite a lot and it seems to be quite a famous place but it really isn’t that fancy. About 80 per cent of air rifle shooters have a range at home,so I’m not the only one. It makes it very convenient for me because I can just wake up at 3 am and walk down to my shooting range. But I’ve often attended training camps,although we haven’t had training camps in India over the last couple of years. We do have a few good shooting ranges coming up. I recently visited the shooting range in Pune and it’s one of the best in the world. Hopefully we can maintain it.

•Vinayak Padmadeo: In 2002,you lost to a Bangladeshi shooter. What does a loss like that do to you and how do you react to a loss?

He shot out of his skin,and I was pretty surprised that he beat me. I was very disappointed,it hurt me a lot. But I was still very young. In 2002 I had very little experience,I was just getting to learn to deal with things. Initially,any loss would be an emotional thing for me. I would cry and I would throw tantrums. But over a period of time I learnt to deal with it. My biggest success came in 2006 when I won the World Championships. When I won that,I learnt that the difference between winning and losing is really marginal. It taught me to hang in there a little bit more and even if you lose,just try and get the positives out of it and the next time hang in there a little bit extra and hope that it might be enough on that day.

•Vinayak Padmadeo: When did you pick up a rifle after winning?

Two days ago.

•Neeraj Chauhan: Who is your favourite cricketer in the Indian team,when last did you watch a full one-day match and who is your favourite Olympian?

I watch every one-day match. My favourite cricketer is Sachin Tendulkar. My favourite Olympian,I don’t know there have been plenty. I have great admiration for anybody who competes at the Olympic Games. They work for just this dream and do nothing else. Just to show that amount of dedication and let your life revolve around that event is pretty inspirational.

•Sunny Verma: Did your father or family ever ask you to quit sports and join business?

No,but I wanted to quit often. They never ever wanted me to quit.

•Kunal Pradhan: In these Olympics there was more media focus on Gagan Narang,on some of your colleagues rather than you. Did that help?

It was a conscious decision to stay away from the media. I wanted to be more focused,more concentrated. The most important thing going into an Olympics is that you need to have a lot of energy. You need to be fresh. Generally,a week before the team leaves everybody wants to do exclusive interviews which is kind of interesting,but that week becomes very draining for the athlete,and the athlete goes into the Olympics completely dead because he’s been drained by all these interviews.

So I carried a book with me and I used to take it with me to the shooting range every day. We had TV cameras from various news channels visit us every day at the shooting range and there were areas they could get access to the athletes. I used to be waiting for a bus waiting to go back to the village,and every time I would see a media person I would open my book and start reading and really focus,but I still don’t know what the name of the book was.

•Shailaja Bajpai: For a sportsperson,is the quest for perfection more important than winning?

It may differ from athlete to athlete,but for me it has always been the quest for perfection.

That brings out the best of you,you try and improve on your best,try and improve further I am obsessed with perfection and it’s a horrible trait.

•Kunal Pradhan: With the passage of time,has the meaning of the medal changed for you now?

When I came back from the Olympics,that euphoria what I thought I would feel after winning has not happened. When I won I was happy but I was not euphoric because I was drained. I came back to India,and it was a very hectic time for me,going here,going there,giving interviews. I haven’t had a chance to enjoy,and now the Olympic fever has gone.

But at the end of the day it brought a lot of joy to so many people. I was completely taken aback by that. I had no idea that winning a gold medal would brighten up their day. But that was a shock to me and that gave me quite a kick.

•Uthra Ganesan: Guns are generally associated with aggression. On the other hand shooting requires you to be completely calm. focused Have you ever felt like picking up a gun outside the range?

Shooting is a very peaceful sport. It’s very meditative in nature because it requires so much concentration and fine coordination so it is a very meditative sort of exercise. I have never had an attraction to guns outside of shooting. I have no idea or interest in guns beyond the sports aspect.

Transcribed by Shreya Chakravertty

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