Bindra's loudest shot
The only Indian to win solo Olympic gold reflects on mental agility - and the fitness of his sport
A Shot at History: My Obsessive Journey to Olympic Gold
By Abhinav Bindra with Rohit Brijnath
Published by Harper Sport, New Delhi, 2011
Available from HarperCollins.co.in, R400 (Bt240)
Reviewed by Jitendra Nath Misra
Guns are more than decoration, intimidation or comfort. They are meant," Nobel laureate Toni Morrison wrote in her novel "Paradise". In competitive shooting, can you create poetry from every shot fired? Or is every shot that rends the air merely an announcement of sporting prowess?
Reading an emblematic book by India's only individual Olympic gold medallist, our answer oscillates between the two questions.
This is the first book for both Abhinav Bindra and his co- author, Rohit Brijnath. Given Bindra's fame, it takes an immediate hold of our curiosity. Only after reading it do we realise that, more than a sporting account, this is a lesson in how we can tutor our mind to reach its limits.
The book transports us into the lonesome world of shooting, where dreams are shaped by the hermit-like lifestyles of the competitors. As a guide to training and psychological preparation, every athlete and coach should read it.
Bindra explains in detail why a fault line developed in his coaching terrain, between training in India and outside of it. Under the charge of his European coaches, he pursued scientific coaching, such as undergoing commando training and monitoring the brain's functions with electrodes.
In the chapter "Mr Indian Official: Thanks for Nothing", Bindra writes about the gulf between the attitudes of coaches and officials in India and those in the West, and his disagreements with those who run the sport in India.
The account of Bindra's steely progression from failure to success is a lesson to us all. After a bronze medal at the Munich World Cup in 2003, the Sydney Olympics instilled in him the belief that he belonged to the elite level, but a medal still eluded him.
At the Athens Olympics Bindra was "assailed by anxiety", where, being a favourite to win gold, he ended up seventh. This made him process-oriented and detached, cold and clinical.
Bindra asserts that, during the Beijing World Cup in 2008 - a test event for the Beijing Olympics - he took photographs of the shooting range and replicated its backdrop and lighting at his home shooting range. He hired a marriage hall for practice, to create the atmosphere of the large hall used for the Olympic finals in Beijing, and ordered Chinese pellets of the type to be used in Beijing.
He even deliberately performed below par in the World Cup just so he would miss the final and not feel satiated before the Olympics. The rest is history.
In sport, as in any other human activity, success and fame can deplete the motivation to excel. The Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska was so traumatised after winning the Nobel Prize that she stopped writing for years.
Something similar happened to Bindra after he won gold at Beijing. It froze his shooting finger, muting his hunger for success. Bindra writes in the chapter "The Days After" how he ran into a wall of emptiness after Beijing.
The other interesting part of this work is the explanation of shooting. Bindra terms shooting "unforgiving" because of the scoring structure, which, unlike cricket or football, gives no second chance: "Even hitting the bull's eye isn't enough. We have to hit a particular part of the bull's eye, we have to exist on the very edge of perfection."
We can say that shooting is like theatre acting. Unlike cinema acting, you don't have another opportunity to perfect the sequence.
"Imperfection wasn't in my dictionary," proclaims Bindra. It was after his defeat to Asif Hossain Khan in the Commonwealth Games at Manchester in 2002 that Bindra realised the importance of remaining focused until the very end.
The lesson stuck, and he won the world championships and the gold at the Beijing Olympics on his last shot.
Can Bindra repeat his feat at the London Olympics? Nobody has won two Olympic golds in the air-rifle event, and only one man has won two Olympic medals in the event.
In a sporting terrain dotted with listless mediocrity, this is one of the few autobiographies written by an Indian sportsman. Bindra thinks deeply about his sport, even raising philosophical questions about the limits of human endurance.
Even though his methods were driven by a thoughtful certainty, why did Bindra fail at Athens, yet win gold at Beijing? There can never be an answer to this, because success comes at that rare moment, when one's inner universe is in equilibrium. If you stir your marrow with thoughts of epic feats, success follows.
This is what the book tells us, and therein lies its importance.
Jitendra Nath Misra is an Indian Foreign Service officer, most recently ambassador to Laos. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the government of India.