‘Sport is much, much more than the competition that happens. The real power of sport lies in what it can do to a community, what it can do to change a person’s life, the values that it teaches you. The biggest learning from sport is that it teaches you to accept failures,’ says Abhinav Bindra.
Abhinav Bindra is India’s first, and only individual Olympics gold medallist. He achieved the feat in the 10-metre air rifle event in Beijing in 2008, beating a world-class field on his last competition shot. He spoke to Shantanu Srivastava on his Olympics journey.
At the onset, I’d like to make an admission. I was extremely fortunate to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games. What does it mean to me? Is it just a piece of metal hanging on a wall in my house? I don’t even look at it. But it has another meaning too. It reminds me of my sporting career, the relationships I was able to build, the memories I forged.
Olympics – and sport, in general – allowed me to build a strong relationship with my mum and my dad. My mother took me to a non-descript sports hostel in Germany when I was 12. It was cold, the food was bad, but the big plus was that I was able to build a bond with my mother. Similarly, with my father. He told me all about guns, and I always looked up to him.
I was able to build relationships with my coaches. I was even able to build relationships with my competitors. So there’s much more than the outcome.
The problem with sport is that we look at athletes as athletes alone. And sometimes we forget the dehumanisation of the athlete that takes place. There’s so much more to us than our rankings. Sport is a human endeavour. And whenever you are involved in a human endeavour that requires such a degree of excellence, there will be a lot of failures in terms of outcomes, but they will also be a lot of human success. It is sometimes hard for people to understand these personal journeys because perhaps these journeys are not as flamboyant or as sexy as standing on top of an Olympic podium. For me, the human element of endeavour is more meaningful. I know, I am going into a little bit of philosophy here, so I’ll stop.
That August day in Beijing will, of course, be etched in my mind forever. My life’s purpose coming together in one singular moment, the history, the occasion, but frankly, the thrill lasted maybe for a minute, or even less than a minute.
Firstly, I didn’t even care if I’d won a gold medal or not, because my goal was very detached from the outcome. My goal was to shoot 60 competition shots in qualifications and then 10 competition shots in the final and to shoot each shot to the best of my ability. And the real thrill was to actually be able to shoot the 10 best shots of my life when it mattered most.
When it all finished, and I went back to my coach, among the first things I told her was that I’m never going to shoot ever again. It really took a lot of energy and a lot of effort.
The afterglow and euphoria of the medal lasted maybe a couple of hours. Ironically, my greatest success was also my greatest crisis in life. Up until Beijing, I had maybe spent 15-16 of my years, just orienting my every single day to that one singular moment. I never thought how it would be after that moment is realised and gone.
And one fine day, that medal was won. That medal was in my pocket. I was all dressed up with nowhere to go. It was challenging because on a very personal level, I was lost. There was more euphoria around me than within me. So I had to deal with that I couldn’t suddenly just disconnect from what was happening around me. I had to participate in that euphoria because, to a certain degree, I didn’t have the courage to say, ‘no, I can’t do this anymore.’
When things finally settled down, maybe a month or a couple of months after the Games, that’s when I really felt that void even more. I needed to know what to do with myself, I needed my energy back.
Sport is much, much more than the competition that happens. The real power of sport lies in what it can do to a community, what it can do to change a person’s life, the values that it teaches you. The biggest learning from sport is that it teaches you to accept failures.
Success was the greatest crisis. And I know a lot of people who feel that way. There are top athletes who get disoriented after achieving what they wanted to. It’s the same for journalists who are invested in the Olympics, or the leadership of an organising committee. Spare a thought for the organising committee of this Olympics – in two weeks from now, the world will move on from Tokyo 2020. What I mean is, when you work with all your focus on a singular thing, it has the potential to create these voids.
In my Olympic journey, I made the mistake of focussing too much on one pursuit. I put all my eggs in one basket. But the biggest error I made was that I started believing that a gold medal equates to happiness. We orient our lives towards an outcome, which I feel is not the right approach. I made that mistake, and perhaps that’s why I felt lost after winning the gold. When I did win the gold medal, I wasn’t suddenly happier. Well, maybe I was, for a few minutes.
That doesn’t mean that failure shouldn’t hurt you. Failure hurts, as it must. It’s a definite punch to your ego. But you get over it much faster. When I failed in Athens in 2004, I still had Beijing 2008 to look forward to. I was depressed, I was sad, but time heals everything. That said, the void that I felt after my greatest success was much harder to overcome. It took me over a year to overcome, while the hurt of Athens went away in a week.
I also believe athletes should be good role models. I have tweeted about this in past, and some of the recent incidents involving our Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar do hurt me. I think it is time that we must look to sensitise our athletes towards their larger roles. It is a complex issue, but the solutions lie in giving athletes proper education while they’re still competing and skilling them in different areas. We must encourage our athletes to have dual careers and prepare them for life outside their years as active sportspeople.
My Olympics journey is over, but what remains is what I have learned through sport. And that is how my life’s journey will continue. I learned a little bit of how to win, but I learned how to lose, I learned honesty, I learned to be critically, brutally honest to myself, I learned to have a goal, and I learned to have incredible integrity to follow that goal. I learned the values of friendship, I learned not only to respect others but also to find my own self-respect. I learned to listen to other people, whether I agreed with them or not. I learned to view conflict with an open mind and use it as a source for personal growth.
In whatever I do in life, these values will remain true. And I will continue to follow these values. I want to give back to society in a certain way, and it is the Olympic and sporting values that I will try to promote. I don’t know if my Olympic journey and my sporting life have made me a better person – I certainly hope they have – but the values of sport have influenced me to a great degree.
To all those competing, I wish you all the best. Don’t let success or failure define your lives and happiness. Tokyo 2020 will mark the beginning of a few Olympic journeys and also the end of some, but the learnings from your endeavours will stay with you forever.