Abhinav Bindra: A straight-shooter if ever there was one
“Talent does what it can; genius does what it must” – Edward Bulwer-Lytton
The fact that these words, written by the famous English playwright in the 19th century, hold relevance even 150 years later is quite astonishing. Ever since competitive sport has become a part of our collective consciousness, we have seen women and men perform feats of brilliance on a football field, baseball pitch, or in Olympic arenas, and their success seemed almost pre-ordained.
While a few of these supreme athletes induce feelings of amazement and admiration within us, some just leave you wondering whether their level of endurance, commitment, intelligence and class is even human.
People might know Abhinav Bindra as India’s only individual gold medalist in Olympic history. But the Chandigarh-based shooter is much more than that one event in Beijing – he is a genius with a penchant for wandering in uncharted territories, whose accomplishments are often taken for granted because of who he is.
Bindra’s farmhouse in Zirakpur, located mid-way between Chandigarh and Patiala, is actually a lot like him – meticulous and intricate, away from the limelight and highly private. The moment you enter his house, its class, luxury and extravagance threaten to overawe you.
But all of that goes out of the window when you take one look at the medal room.
Right from his 2002 Commonwealth Games gold, to the 2014 Asian Games bronze, all of Bindra’s medals cover the walls of this “achievement room”, which makes you feel inadequate and inspired, both at the same time.
Bindra's glorious journey of shooting came to an end at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where he missed out on a medal by a margin that would somewhere between 99.99 percent and perfection. It has been almost three months since he bid adieu to his beloved sport, and most athletes – especially those who have put in 20 years of rigorous effort – would take a long break. But not Abhinav Bindra.
Life after shooting – technology and gratitude
“I am not involved in sport anymore but there are a lot of things that have kept me busy. There are several projects coming up and setting up the Technobody micro high-performance centre, in particular, has taken a major chunk of my time,” he says.
“Along with high-performance in sport, this centre has to do with medical rehab, which is orthopaedic and neurological. Rehab in India is unorganised at the moment, as compared to overseas, and there is tremendous scope for development. The first one is ready to go and this is what has taken my immediate time post-Rio (Olympics),” Bindra adds.
Trying out new things is something of a special talent of Bindra's, and it is not surprising that the shooter is at the forefront of bringing about this revolutionary technology into the country. But where did he get the idea from? From a place where science, innovation and technology unite.
“This centre has Technobody line of equipment (about 8 to 9 pieces) installed, and they take care of different areas of physical training of an athlete in a scientific manner. It utilises a combination of science and training to improve aspects like posture, stability, strength and cardio,” says Bindra, describing his new venture.
“There is also a pilates set-up and a ‘mind room’ that gives you bio feedback along with a neuro tracker called ‘cognitive trainer’, which is a technology based out of Montreal in Canada. We also have on-site physiotherapy and cryotherapy,” he adds.
The micro high-performance centre, at present, is only good enough to host one-on-one sessions for athletes and could be aptly described as a prototype on which future units, possibly larger in size and capacity, are going to be modelled. “Providing facilities to athletes is one goal but there is a business side to it as well. I have been working with Technobody for three years and have been using their equipment. The idea is to set up more centres that will fit in institutions like hospitals and sport structures,” Bindra says.
While all this seems quite outlandish in theory, Bindra elucidates its necessity through a simple example. “Say, a runner goes to a sports science centre to get a gait analysis done on his/her biomechanical properties and performance. The centre would give you a report but what would you do with it? Interpretation of such a report is difficult and that is where Technobody comes in to bridge that gap,” explains Bindra.
“The Technobody treadmill has a sensor and 3D camera in front of you, thereby giving you real-time feedback. After the basic assessment, an athlete can work on improving shortcomings on the same treadmill, which is pretty revolutionary,” he adds.
Knowing a particular technology in such detail is not expected of an athlete, but Bindra is a man of method and he is well-versed with how his baby works, having used it himself before the 2016 Rio Olympics. In fact, Technobody made a “portable device” for him and Bindra carried the 50 kg unit to Brazil and trained on it daily to measure “static stability.”
As Bindra goes about enthusiastically spelling out the specs of the device, I can't help but glance at the pictures in his house charting his career timeline. The pictures, from over the years, seem to suggest that his smile has decreased in width and that the stress factor has gone up. Has stress taken a toll on him?
He disagrees instantly. “No, not at all. In fact, I enjoyed shooting the most during my last few years of my career. The period from 2012 to 2016 was the most enjoyable for me,” he says.
“I appreciated something that was coming to an end, I guess. When you are doing things regularly, there is a tendency of taking them for granted and not appreciating what you have. However, when you realise that it is coming to an end, you value it and enjoy more,” he adds.
The end of a two-decade long career can have serious repercussions on a person and can create a huge void, making you miss the sport, but not for Bindra. Has he been tempted to pick up the gun even once? Not at all, he communicates by shaking his head with utter clarity.
NRAI report a blessing in disguise?
Unwillingness to resume shooting doesn't mean he wants to cut off from the sport; if anything, Bindra wants to pay back what shooting and India have done for him. ”I have been associated with Indian sport for 20-odd years and it is really close to my heart. I see a lot of potential in Indian athletes and believe that we can win many medals at the Olympics if the right training and nurturing is provided for.
“Athletes, especially from the young generation, do not possess expertise in carving out their own paths, and this is where we need to come in and help them out. We need to stop ‘trial and error’ because that results in failure on a lot of occasions,” he says.
And these are not just words either; Bindra is actually committed to doing his bit. Immediately after Rio he headed the NRAI (National Rifle Association of India) Review Committee, which prepared a report on India’s performance at the 2016 Olympics and how to improve things in the future.
The two-part report, which assessed all 12 shooters individually (including Abhinav) and the NRAI’s functioning process, was made public – and it made for compelling reading. Not only did it have strong words for the NRAI, but the shortcomings of the athletes were also written about quite explicitly.
Was it fair to make the report public? While he does not comment on the athlete aspect of the report since he was not involved in that part, Bindra feels that the observations made about the NRAI were right and there was nothing wrong in putting them out in the public domain.
The report was not very flattering about some athletes (Gagan Narang and Ayonika Paul for instance), and the remarks could be characterised as harsh given the fact that they were made public. However, Bindra feels that these observations, if taken in the right spirit, could actually prove to be beneficial for athletes; the intention behind the report was nothing but positive.
An Olympic journey to remember
During the course of his career, Bindra participated in five Olympics – 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 – winning a medal once (2008) and coming tantalisingly close on two occasions (2004 and 2016). Winning a medal in his last Olympics (2016) would have been fantastic but Bindra was more disappointed about missing out in 2004 (Athens).
“With a little bit of luck on my side, I could have had two more Olympic medals. Apart from 2008, I came quite close in 2004 and 2016. What happened in 2004 was something I could not control so that makes it more disappointing,” Bindra says.
The 2016 Rio Olympics too had its share of misfortune for Bindra as the “sight” of his rifle broke just before the event and he did not have a replacement. You would assume that an athlete, especially a shooter, would have a back-up for something as important as the “sight” on a rifle, but the specimen Bindra was supposed to use was a prototype, which was specifically created for the range in Rio.
“That particular sight was created by me and my coach for Rio. Nobody in the world had that kind of a sight (then) and it was customised in accordance with that particular range. But I would not want to dwell upon the incident because the consequences are merely hypothetical. Maybe I would have done better or maybe not, who knows?” he says, wearing a rather dark look on his face.
Competing in the Olympics is as much psychological as it is physical, and Bindra was quick to learn from his experiences in Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004) before going to Beijing, where he won the gold medal.
“Athens (2004) was a bitter experience for me as I missed out on a medal by the smallest margin. From 2004 to 2008, I focused on only the process and not the outcome, detaching myself from the latter. After 2008, detachment became tough as I was reminded every day about being an Olympic champion and had to live with it, even when I wanted to do it badly,” says Bindra
Winning an Olympic gold medal can be a double-edged sword, according to Bindra, and he experienced great difficulty in generating the same motivation levels after 2008. “For several years of my life (from 1996 to 2008), I woke up every day and worked towards this goal of winning the gold medal at the Olympics, and it was the only reason why I lived. And finally, one day I had that medal in my pocket. I had managed to climb to the top of the mountain but suddenly it was all empty and there was a huge void,” he says.
How did he work towards staying at the top of the mountain? “You cannot stay there, you have to climb down and go up again. Human nature is to stay on top but reality is that you need to go to down and do it all over again,” he says philosophically.
Vulnerability and a strong family values system
Bindra’s general body language indicates that he's a person who is quite calm and composed, but the reality is quite different. “My outer demeanour might suggest calmness but inside I am very vulnerable, hyper and live with anxiety,” he says. To think how he could have kept calm all this while, with a storm brewing inside, is incredible.
Shooting, by its natural disposition, might be an activity that symbolises violence and destruction, but Bindra believes the sport is the exact opposite. “I feel shooting, as a sport, is highly peaceful and private. In fact, it is the most private sport played in public. There is a sense of internality and meditation about it,” he says.
That comment seems at odds with Bindra's upbringing. He was born into a rich Punjabi family, and in North India that can come with a lot of perks. He could have done anything from becoming a businessman to an actor, and his family would have given their full support – both financial and moral. Why then choose a sport as niche as shooting in lieu of a life of fun, luxury and entertainment?
Turns out it was all about the family, but in a different way than you'd expect.
“I never liked sports when I was a kid and it was my father who pushed me into this. I started shooting when I was young and because I liked it so much, continued doing it. And obviously the value system inculcated by my parents helped me a lot,” Bindra says.
The world might have taken notice of Abhinav Bindra, the perfectionist shooter, during the mid-2000s, but he had started honing his skills much before that. At the age of 12 or 13, when most children have no burdens, when they watch cartoons and play board games all day, Bindra was already hard at work.
“I stopped all this (going out) at an early age and dedicated all my time to just shooting. Initially, I used to come back from school at around 2 pm, following which I would train for around three hours and then return home, do my homework and go to sleep,” he explains.
The practice hours increased from 21 per week to 45 as Bindra grew older and took up shooting at a competitive level. “It was not a typical childhood but you need to make certain sacrifices if you want to achieve something, and I did the same. It was a bit hard initially as my friends did not understand what I was doing but after some level of achievement, I guess they got to know,” Bindra adds.
He is still in touch with some of his school friends.
Overcoming challenges, and the toll on the body and the mind
Becoming an Olympic champion is not just about hard work, talent and determination, but also about support and opportunity. Bindra might have been really lucky to be born into an affluent family, but he feels that he had a mountain of challenges to overcome too, like everyone else.
“See, everyone has their own obstacles to overcome. Succeeding in sport, especially at the top level, is really tough. I might have been fortunate in one way but there were drawbacks here as well. At the end of the day, when you are there at the shooting range competing for a medal, your background does not matter at all and everyone is an equal. What brings you through is desperation,” Bindra explains.
Sometimes we tend to forget the human side of our sporting heroes, and look at them as invincible when in fact they are anything but. Bindra, indeed, had more than a few hurdles before him as he progressed through his career. The biggest of them all? Being competitive.
“I am not competitive, I am a chicken,” Bindra says with astonishing candour. “I had to work on being competitive every day of my life. I was a chicken when I won the gold medal in 2008 (Beijing). The grass always seems greener on the other side, but anyone who tries to achieve excellence in any field goes through a lot of tough times. And I respect that,” he says.
Bindra was a child prodigy and his coaches, in the past, have said that they spotted something extraordinary in the bespectacled teenager. However, the man himself believes his talents lie somewhere else. “I believe I am not naturally gifted and my talent lies in working hard. Air rifle shooting is a highly mechanical sport and your body structure plays an important role in determining how good you are,” he asserts.
Bindra's body took a tremendous toll and the back went through several injuries. But when competing at the highest level, you have to bear it all and move forward.
Eyesight, naturally, plays a huge role in the success of a shooter and Bindra, remarkably, has relatively poor vision. “I won the gold medal in 2008 with bad eyesight. I had -3 vision and zero peripheral vision, which is really important for balance. In fact, when I used to walk, I could not see anything on my side. I would walk past a person and not acknowledge them. People thought I was arrogant but in reality, I could not see them,” he says.
The peripheral vision problem was done away with in 2008 through surgery, but that brought about an added distraction as Bindra was now able to see everything clearly. But that hurdle too was dealth with in his trademark composed manner, and there were many more successes to follow.
Obsession with “process”
Bindra is known for doing everything possible to achieve success in his sport, and putting himself out of his comfort zone was one of his methods. During the course of his career, Bindra did skydiving and climbed a “pizza pole”, among several daredevil acts.
“Before Beijing, I wanted to go for bungee jumping but ended up going for the pizza pole activity. The idea is to enhance your decision-making power and take control under pressure. It is impossible to feel the pressure during training and I had to find ways of inducing stress upon myself,” he explains.
A penchant for the unusual extends to his personal life as well, and he loves observing the way people behave. Psychology runs in the family – Bindra’s mother is a trained psychology consultant – but he has never been subject to her profession personally.
“I just find it interesting to observe people and what makes them uncomfortable. It is human nature, we derive comfort from other people’s discomfort. So when you told me that you were nervous, I felt a little better,” Bindra says as he breaks into mild laughter.
Extraordinary achievers have something in their mental repertoire that normal people do not possess. For Bindra, that seems to be an obsession with the word “process”, and adhering to a created structure. He acknowledges that with a chuckle and then goes about elaborating how and why it was crucial to his success.
“There are two aspects two it. In the first place, sport is unpredictable and nothing can guarantee success because it is not scripted. So you have do everything possible to enhance your chances of winning by sticking to processes and minimising chances of errors.
Secondly, I personally am not competitive, athletic or instinctive like many others, so I need to rely on training and process to make up for the same. I do not like competition. I like training,” he says matter-of-factly.
Talking about talent, Bindra mentions fellow shooter and Olympic medallist Gagan Narang as one of those who possesses natural ability in spades. “I think Gagan is really talented and instinctive. I would say he is a hundred times more talented than me. I have seen him closely and he is much more instinctive,” he says.
He does not go so far as to call Narang, also an Olympic medallist, a “friend”, but describes his relationship with him as cordial and one based on mutual admiration.
A career full of ‘moments’ – some unknown, some celebrated, some unpopular
The greatest of athletes often believe in maximizing on their opportune ‘moments’, which puts them on a pedestal of metaphorical immortality. However, the source of that defining moment usually lies deep in the past and shrouded in something ordinary, at a time when no one is looking at you. A virtual epiphany gets hold of you for a short while, laying the foundation of the future game-changing moment.
For Bindra, that epiphany came at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“When I finished 11th at the 2000 games (in Sydney), that was the moment when I truly believed I could win the gold medal,” he says with bulls-eye clarity. This moment, according to Bindra, came deep from the gut and was really powerful.
Geniuses in every field dare to do things that ordinary people would not do, maybe out of fear or lack of imagination, but Bindra was not one of them. During the course of his career, Bindra has taken some harsh decisions, even if they were not popular ones, to ensure that his preparation didn't get affected.
He declined to carry the Indian flag at the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, something that no other athlete would ever think of doing. However, Bindra felt it was necessary to do so in the best interests of his event.
“My gut said that I should not do it (carrying the flag) because it could affect my performance. The opening ceremony is physically quite demanding, you see. For instance, when I carried the flag in Rio, I left the Olympic village at 3 in the afternoon and returned to my room at 3 in the morning. Out of those 12 hours, I spent nine hours standing and quite naturally, it has an effect on your cycle and other things,” he replies defiantly.
So why did he carry the flag in Rio? “It was a different thought process and I was at my 5th Olympic Games. I was looking for different ways to motivate myself and thought that going to the opening ceremony could be one of them,” he says.
Bindra attended only two out of five Olympic ceremonies during his career – Sydney 2000 and Rio 2016.
The problems plaguing Indian sport
Bindra’s straightforward opinions about Indian sport are well-known, and he repeats that we need to start planning at the grass root level. “We need to be planning for 2024 already by establishing grass root development programmes and working towards creating champions, who will win us medals at the Games,” he says.
But what about the 2020 Tokyo Olympics? “They are around three years away now, considering 2016 is almost over. You think we will be able to produce a brand new athlete in three years? We potentially know who all are going to go in 2020. There will be a few who will make their Olympic debuts and others who might develop, but that is going to be a restricted number,” he says.
“We won six medals in London (2012) and there was an element of luck to that. In Rio, we won two and came close on a couple of other occasions. Until we create a deep grass-root level system, we are going to be stuck in single digits. I do not think we can win medals in double digits with the way things are going right now. I would love to be proven wrong,” he adds.
The idea of focusing on just a few sports that can get us medals in the short run is something Bindra does not agree with; he thinks India should invest in sports where multiple medals are on offer, such as rowing and fencing. But before all of that, it is essential, according to Bindra, that we clearly define our sporting ambitions.
“We are very confused as a country and do not know what we want. Every four years, whenever the Olympics come, we start wishing for medals in bulk. We are a developing country and we have a lot of issues that are far more pressing than sports, such as food, water, electricity and many others. If we want to be a sporting power and win 30-40 medals at the Olympics, we need to make investments in that direction,” Bindra explains.
Lack of emphasis on professionalism has been a big reason for the slow progress of Indian sport, and Bindra believes that the introduction of structures through legislation is the only way forward. “There is a huge amount of resistance to change in our country and if anything of that nature needs to be brought, a mandate or a bill is required. It is only then that people are going to fall in line.
Change has not come organically for more than 60 years now, and we cannot wait for another 60,” he asserts.
There was also a lot of talk around the way Indians celebrated PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik’s achievements, with accusations that they were blown out of proportion. But Bindra believes that Indians have a natural flair for the dramatic, and there's nothing wrong with that.
“We like doing things in the extreme, be it victory or loss. As Indians, I think we love drama a lot and that is our nature. India is the only country where we celebrate fourth place with such fervour. I cannot imagine this kind of celebration anywhere else,” he says.
The much-guarded personal life
Any athlete who has reached the top of his/her profession would tell you how their personal life takes a toll, and Bindra is no different. However, he does not have any regrets about that, and says that he found an extended family in shooting circle. The losses incurred as a result of focusing solely on shooting were made up for by the bonds he created with those around him during the course of his career.
But how come there has never been any information in the media about Bindra having a romantic relationship? “I just do not talk about it,” he says with a hint of reservation in his voice, and that's that.
I quickly move on to his off-field hobbies. What does he like doing when he's not at the shooting range? “I am an art collector. I love contemporary Indian art. There are several artists I like but I collect works of upcoming ones as I cannot afford the famous ones,” he says cheekily.
Bindra is also addicted to news and world affairs. “I follow politics, debates and everything happening around the world. I watch Lok Sabha TV and Rajya Sabha TV. I think I am the only one who does,” he says.
Will he ever accept an honorary Rajya Sabha nomination? “I do not think it is going to come to me.”
A firm stance on nationalism and India's social ills
Patriotism and nationalism have become a strong part of national discourse these days, especially on social media. Bindra thinks that these issues are highly complicated and that everyone has their own definition of patriotism. “I love my country and I am patriotic in my own way. My way of showing love and patriotism is spending a significant portion of my life trying to enhance the prestige of my nation,” he says.
Honesty is Bindra’s wing-man, and he makes no bones about saying what he feels is the truth. “All athletes, at least 99.9 percent of them, play for themselves first, whether it is a team sport or an individual one,” he says without hesitation.
“Of course, you are representing your country, it is a given, and it is a matter of great motivation, but there is a huge amount of individual pursuit there. I am sure when a cricketer is batting, he thinks about his innings. However, they would not acknowledge it because saying that is not politically correct,” he adds.
Being a part of Punjab, Bindra feels strongly about the drug problem that plagues the state, and thinks that sport can be a great deterrent in stopping it. “I think sport is a great tool to get rid of a lot of problems. By inculcating sport in our ecosystem, I think we can develop greatly as a nation and become more sporting in nature more than anything else,” he claims.
No conversation about patriotism these days is complete without the other “P” word – Pakistan – and how the current governments work. “There is a lot of positive energy around. Obviously, things take time to reflect on the ground level and producing results is not possible overnight. A lot of patience is required,” says Bindra.
Quite interestingly, he has a peculiar connection with Pakistan. “My shooting jackets have always been made in Pakistan. The manufacturer is Swedish but it is made in Sialkot.”
Is marriage on the cards for Bindra? “Yeah, definitely, but I would not like to talk about it. When it happens, it happens,” says India’s only ever individual Olympic gold medallist.
The precision with which he answers the question is an indication of how well prepared he is, despite the fact that he hates giving interviews. A man of great depth of character, Bindra has never learned to mince words, and it is highly unlikely he would be doing so in the coming years.