The hermit with a gun

Uthra Ganesan | Updated on January 17, 2018

Iceman on target: Abhinav Bindra has developed a level of detachment from results that is rare, but his interests beyond shooting are next to nil. - Sandeep Saxena   -  sandeep saxena

Abhinav Bindra pursued perfection single-mindedly and competed at the highest level on his own terms

He is nicknamed ‘The Iceman’. Abhinav Bindra, Olympic gold medallist and shooter extraordinary would perhaps make an excellent poker player, now that he has insisted on retiring from active shooting, except that he doesn’t believe in taking a gamble or trusting his luck.

In fact, Bindra isn’t one to hail or blame luck. The 34-year-old has spent a large part of his life chasing perfection, and paid a huge price for it. He has lived with a perpetual back pain for almost two decades, the kind that comes with hours of standing still, aiming at a target 10m away, day in and day out. He has been called arrogant, reserved, privileged, heartless and several other charitable and not-so-charitable names.

But nothing has held him back from pursuing excellence. In the process, he gave life to a new kind of Indian sportsperson — one who is confident of his place and assured in his self-belief about competing with the best on equal terms. If Rajyavardhan Rathore broke the metaphorical glass ceiling with his historic silver at Athens in 2004, Bindra pushed the envelope just that much more to win the gold.

“It took a lot of courage to stand up again after Athens [Olympics, where he finished seventh] and, personally, for me, that is much more important than winning the gold. Every competitor at the Olympic stage is a potential champion; everyone is very, very talented. Winning and losing is just part of the game. On his day, anyone can win. It’s the fightback after being down that matters,” he had admitted after Beijing, the Iceman mask slipping just a little.

Flashback to that evening of August 11 in Beijing eight years ago. A final shot of 10.8, as close to perfection in shooting as it can get, is accompanied by the slightest of waves with a clenched fist and a bemused expression that could have been a smile. Climbing on to the podium and watching the tricolour rise slowly to the tune of the national anthem, he had the same unblinking look misinterpreted by some as aloofness, but was most likely a sense of relief and quiet pride. He has since spoken about not being able to take his eyes off the national flag.

That evening reinforced the ‘Iceman’ image. But it also made him the greatest living individual champion in Indian sports and an ambassador of its potential for millions, long before the IOA decided to anoint him as one, ahead of the Rio Games. On his return from Beijing, the Iceman finally bared his emotions, but like everything he does, it wasn’t effusive. “I feel... empty,” he had said back then. “You feel you have given your best, done it all, and now that you have achieved what you have worked all your life for, it’s just done… life goes on,” he had added.

Cut to the Olympic Shooting Centre in Rio de Janeiro. Trailing through most of the qualifying event, Bindra just about managed to get into the final in seventh place. But then he steadily climbed into contention for a bronze before bowing out as fourth in a shoot-off. His final shot as an Olympian was a ‘perfect 10’ but not enough to put him on the podium. His reaction was not too different from what it was eight years ago, except perhaps for the clenched fist that gave way to a small wave to his supporters. So were his post-event comments. “Someone had to be fourth, I did, I did my best and I don’t regret anything,” he said. His detractors may still call him cold, but Bindra could not care less.

His best two Olympic performances have also come under controversial circumstances. At Beijing, there were rumours of his gun being tampered with before the final and also attempts to disrupt his balance by damaging the flooring. At Rio, his gun fell on the floor the morning of the event, forcing him to use a replacement scope. Not one to make a fuss, he shrugged off the setback both times. No wonder his admirers liken him to a monk.

Bindra is hermetic outside the range too. However, he has started interacting on social media recently. For the first time, he opened up the fabled range at his home in Mohali to journalists before leaving for Rio. He gave interviews and, as the brand ambassador of the Indian contingent, wrote letters of encouragement to other athletes. But he is yet to decide what he wants to do next. The past two decades have revolved around shooting and sharpening his skills. He has always competed against himself. The attempt was always to give it his best shot. He has developed a level of detachment from results that is rare, but his interests beyond shooting are next to nil.

Bindra’s success story is not the typical one of an Indian athlete who battles poverty and tough times to make his mark. Belonging to an affluent Punjabi family — his father Apjit Singh Bindra and mother Babli are promoters of a ₹300-crore hi-tech company and he is the CEO of Abhinav Futuristics, the sole distributor of the well-known Walther brand of rifles and pistols in India. Bindra never had to struggle for financial resources.

Ironically, it was his affluence that made people question his sincerity and determination early on. Starting at the age of 15 with his first coach Lt Col JS Dhillon, Bindra was the youngest participant at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, finishing 11th. In 2001 he was awarded the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, the highest sporting honour in the country, at the age of 18 and opened his thanksgiving speech saying Anjali Bhagwat deserved it better — not exactly a sign of arrogance.

Few people know that Bindra has established the Abhinav Bindra Foundation and the Abhinav Bindra Sporting Trust and works with schools to promote shooting at the grassroots by providing technical and financial assistance, without any government help. He has co-authored a book with his former coach Gabriele Buhlmann — Ways of the Rifle details the technical aspects of a rifle and also the correct way of using one. His official biography, A Shot at History, is about his obsession with winning an Olympic gold.

Despite finishing fourth in his fifth and last Olympics, Bindra remains the gold standard for individual sporting excellence in India. Since August 8, he has been voicing his opinions on Twitter, showcasing his deadpan humour and raising questions on the way India prepares its sportspersons for the big stage. Hopefully, in the future, many more Indian athletes will get their names in the gold winners’ list at the Olympic Games. But Bindra will always be at the top.

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Published on August 19, 2016
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