For as long as he can remember, life for Abhinav Bindra has meant putting his body – and mind – through torture and living in a bubble of guns and shooting ranges. Of late, he has tried to open up to things – from religion to travel – but always finds himself staring at a dot 10 cm away from him. Mihir Vasavda absorbs Bindra’s mindset ahead of his last Olympics.
One of the great travel selfies of our times – a 124 ft-high statue of Christ the Redeemer – is in Rio, a Brazilian landmark that would repeatedly hit our eyeballs this Olympics. One Indian, who would be in the city in August, wouldn’t be queuing up for a visit, though.
One he isn’t much into sight-seeing, two he has been there before. Plus there’s one more reason. This April, Abhinav Bindra, while in Rio for an Olympic test even, stepped out of his comfort zone and took the tourist route along with his physio Digpal Singh Ranawat. Christ the Redeemer, he was told, was unmissable. He returned unimpressed. “So boring…” he grimaces. Call it curse or blessing, but cocooned in his sporting bubble, Bindra isn’t moved by much outside.
During the same trip, he embarked on a three-hour journey from the Olympic Village to the shooting range. It was a long, uncomfortable drive. The bad back and muscle pain he has developed due to years of military-like training made it even more agonizing. But pain is something he is familiar with. It’s been his constant companion, since the time he got serious about shooting. Avoiding pleasures and embracing pain has become second nature for the man getting ready for his fifth Olympics. For someone who has been on top of the world’s grandest stage before, Bindra knows what he is doing. His priorities are crystal clear.
For as long as he can remember, Bindra has put his body – and mind – through torture. Once, during a practice ahead of the World Cup in Beijing, his coach Gaby Buhlmann asked him what his ‘wish’ was. “I wish not to suffer,” Bindra answered. Gaby smiled, and walked away. There were no false assurances. And Bindra wasn’t expecting any. He knows it’s something he can’t escape. “That’s the name of the game,” he says.
In another three weeks, he will be in Rio for his last Olympics. The swansong, though, isn’t without the suffering. He is 33, which isn’t old for a shooter. But the trauma Bindra’s body has gone through has taken its toll.
“Sleep is a huge issue. I have insomnia. When I travel, I take time to adjust. Ten years ago, I could sleep anywhere, anytime. Now there are days when I don’t sleep at all, four-five nights. That plays havoc because the mind doesn’t function, you’re irritated. But you’ve to train. Go and shoot,” he says.
His eyesight and reaction time aren’t the same anymore too. Sharp vision is crucial to spot the bulls-eye which is a tiny dot at a distance of 10m. Still, he ‘loves’ these challenges. “You think it is something easy? You think this is a lovely life? There are challenges. I like it, I love it. It’s hard. The point I am trying to make is from outside it may look easy and quite nice. You get to travel the world. People say, ‘you’ve been to Rio…it must be great.’ But it’s not like that. Knowingly, unknowingly there is certain amount of expectation you’ve created within and you try and deal with it.”
Suffering through the pain is a huge part of dealing with the expectations. He, however, makes a conscious effort to not let it bother him. “I would be lying if I don’t get the feeling of doing something else; something that’s not torturous. At some point of time I may have…” he says. “But not presently. I love what I do. I cannot afford to have that feeling so close to the Olympics.”
It’s April 2016. The Games are still three months away. Rather, just three months away. We are just outside Mohali, at the Bindra Farms. It’s a palatial place that could easily pass off as a movie set. Pristine white bungalow, neatly manicured lawns with a white tent at the centre of it. Each blade of grass is of the same size, the walkway is spotless and not one thing is out of place. But then, this is Bindra’s residence. Imperfection has no entry beyond those huge steel gates.
Tucked at the back of the house, in front of a vegetable garden, is the fabled range where Bindra spends most of his time when in India. You enter through a white door with a Rio 2016 logo. To ensure he is familiar with the venue in Rio, Bindra has recreated the range here. The walls are green and it has three shooting lanes numbered 27, 28 and 29. The place is equipped with an electronic scoring system and a printer gives him the score-sheets after every session.
Bindra sits with his back facing the wall which adorns memories from his past. Photographs of him winning the gold at the 2006 World Championships, receiving the Khel Ratna in 2001 and, of course, ‘that’ moment. Messages received from then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and president Pratibha Patil occupy the space next to the picture of him with the gold medal around his neck and a big, hearty smile on his face.
But Bindra’s eyes are fixed on the wall in front of him, where another Rio 2016 logo is painted on top of the target in the middle lane. This place reeks of perfection. And perfection is what Bindra is yearning for one last time. Being more perfect than the others. Only then will he attain peace.
The tiny dot on the square board placed 10m away from him isn’t Bindra’s only target. The Road to Rio has also been the one of self-exploration for him. Bindra is not an easy man to decipher. He is shy and is submerged in his own world of rifles, ammos and targets. There’s little else that interests him. No parties. No movies. No flashy lifestyle. He is straightforward and sarcastic with a wit which is often deadpan.
Bindra’s day starts at 8am and till noon he shoots around 100-120 shots. Immediately after shooting is a work-out, followed by lunch at 1. He rests till 3pm before returning to the gym at 5pm. For an hour after that, he undergoes recovery treatment with physio Digpal Singh Ranawat.
He has been following this routine for the last two decades, and it has worked wonders for him. But all these years, Bindra has been training his eyes to look at only one target. Now, when the time has come to look beyond, a sudden realisation seems to have dawned upon him.
“Maybe if I was a little more multidimensional, I would have been more successful. I would have had more pefrspectives in life. My life is just shooting. It’s what I wake up for. It’s what I sleep for. It’s been my system for the last 20 years. It’s nice, given me some advantages, focus, single-minded attention. But it could have a few drawbacks. I wouldn’t suggest this way to others. It takes away a lot of energy,” he says.
These days, post-training he tries ‘other things’. It’s some more shooting – but administrative. Bindra, the chairman of the international shooting federation’s athletes’ commission, catches up on the day’s work. Apart from that, he is also trying to stay updated with his family’s business.
The family, on the other hand, is getting into the ‘Games’ zone. Like Bindra, Rio will mark the end of the road for those around him. Recently, his nephews presented him with a good luck card. Bindra’s mother has framed the score-sheet of his final practice at the home range on June 16. He scored just one 9 in the six series, finishing with a 10.5.
Bindra Senior is looking to perform 1,000 pujas across 1,000 temples for his son. He hopes it will contribute to Bindra earning a podium finish. The father thinks differently from the son who leaves nothing to fate. For Bindra, it’s rationality over faith. Or is it? “I am trying to be (religious). Trying to connect to god. There was a time when I was an atheist, the last 15 years. (But) it’s nice to have faith in something,” he says.
Being religious, or trying to be, isn’t the only new aspect of Bindra’s personality. He has started doing ‘other things’. Visiting museums, collecting Indian contemporary art and PlayStation are among the few hobbies he has developed. Bindra plays FIFA and shooting games on his PS but, he says, he is already bored of it.
In Germany, where he spends most of his time training, Bindra stays opposite the Westfalenstadion, the home to Borussia Dortmund. Every week, he sees thousands of people walk through his lane.
“BVB (Dortmund’s abbreviation) is my team. I live like one minute away from the stadium. I can see it from my room window. The atmosphere in the city every week is nice. Lots of fans turn up, hotels are full, and city is packed. I was in downtown during a recent trip because I had to buy something and the city was going crazy. But I haven’t been for a match. Maybe I will,” he says.
Visiting Christ the Redeemer was an attempt to do ‘other things’. But like most things non-shooting, he was bored.
Bindra’s post-retirement plans provide a completely different dimension to the man. But is this really the end? Twice before, Bindra has announced retirement – first time just before the 2014 Commonwealth Games final and then, a month later in Incheon at the Asian Games. However, on both occasions, he changed his mind. “I lied,” he retorts, as if to end the debate.
Back then, Bindra had said he would cut down his practice hours from approximately 40 every week to two or maybe three. But barely two weeks after making the statement, he found himself back at the range, firing 100 shots daily. It wasn’t surprising. Here is a man who while on a 10-day break from shooting went to a Vipasana camp. It didn’t work as there wasn’t a moment when Bindra wasn’t thinking about shooting.
But this time, he assures it is for real. Bindra has skipped opening ceremonies of the last two Olympics since they end late in the night and shooting events start early the following morning. In London, Bindra and fellow shooter Manavjit Sandhu instead went for a movie near the Olympic park. The show was about to cancelled since they hadn’t sold even a single ticket. Just when they were closing down the box office, Bindra and Manavjit walked in. “The man on the counter handed them tickets with a frown,” Manavjit said recently.
The idea of attending the opening ceremony in Rio excites him. He hopes the atmosphere will lift him up. Even the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) has sensed the occasion and played along. They have appointed him the goodwill ambassador of the contingent a few days after naming Salman Khan in a similar capacity.
Within minutes of being appointed the ambassador of the Indian contingent for the Rio Games, Bindra shot off motivational letters to the entire contingent. In Baku, where he travelled for his World Cup, he met the boxers and spoke about their plight in absence of a parent body for the last four years.
Fittingly, the IOA also named Bindra the flag-bearer for the opening ceremony. There couldn’t have been a better candidate. Like he did with the ambassadorial role, one can expect Bindra to take this seriously as well. For all you know, he might practice the walk with the flag the night before he leads the Indian contingent out during the opening ceremony. After all, he practices how to walk in the shooting range.
There are some concerns that walking with a heavy flag pole a night before his event could impact his performance. But he isn’t worried about that. If anyone, Bindra knows what it takes to overcome pain and stand on top of the podium.