‘Hard work is a talent’: Abhinav Bindra

TO me it is not just amazing — it is intimidating,” said Rahul Dravid, in a revealingly candid moment.

He was referring to Olympian athletes in general, and more particularly to Abhinav Bindra who, at age 26, became the first Indian to win an individual gold (10 m Air Rifle, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics), ending a gold drought that had lasted since 1980.

It was not the act of winning gold that had Dravid waxing superlative, but the scarcely credible circadian rhythms of an Olympian’s life. Here is how Abhinav explains it in his book:

The cricketer has Test matches through the year, the tennis player has four Grand Slam events in twelve months, the golfer has the same number of majors annually. Constantly, there is an opportunity for redemption, a chance to stake a claim for greatness. Not for me. My only chance comes every four years. My only chance is seventy shots in 125 minutes every four years (the first 60 shots have to be fired in 105 minutes, each of the final ten shots within 75 seconds.

We have to be a little insane to do this, a trifle obsessive, almost as single-minded as shaven monks who sit for years meditating under trees in search of distant nirvana… Let’s be clear: we are not you. We are not better than you, or other athletes, just caught in lives weirder than most.

‘Intimidating’ — a word well chosen by a sportsman, monkish in his own way, who could only marvel at the enormous discipline, the focus, the drive and desire that could impel a teenager to dedicate his life towards producing that one perfect shot at that one moment that only comes once in four years — knowing as he pulls the trigger on that day that even absolute perfection isn’t enough.

(No, seriously — a series of perfect tens merely puts you in the final — to win gold, you have to better perfection. In the 2004 Games in Athens, Abhinav set an Olympic record with a score of 597/600 across his first 60 shots — and ended up seventh!).

“It is awesome to think that he can invest four years of his life towards that one moment, towards producing that perfect shot when he needs it most – because that one moment is all he gets. Us cricketers, we can fail in a game or a series, and know that there is another game around the corner, another shot at redemption. But for Abhinav, that moment is it — nothing before that matters, nothing that comes after will matter. Investing an entire life for one hour, one shot — that is intimidating.”

Rahul was speaking at the launch, last evening in Bangalore, of A Shot At History, the autobiography Abhinav co-authored with arguably India’s best sportswriter, Rohit Brijnath.

BOOK launches can be incredibly boring affairs. Some random VIP, often bearing no connection to the theme of the book, “launches” a copy most members of the audience are already clutching in their hands; an author untrained in public performance reads a random passage that means nothing to the lone member of the audience who is actually listening to him/her; several members of the audience pose “questions” designed more to show off their own erudition than to showcase the author and his book; cue clumsy vote of thanks by the organizer and a general stampede for the bar.

This one, at the Mysore Hall of the ITC Gardenia, in Bangalore, was the exception proving the rule (obligatory idiot question notwithstanding). Two sportsmen, brilliant in their own right, discussed the mental mechanics of their respective arts with some gentle shepherding by Rohit — and what came through was a passion shared across sporting disciplines that could not be more dissimilar.

Abhinav and Rahul are the high priests of hard work, and it was the shooter who settled the work-versus-talent debate when he said:

“Practice is a talent. Perseverance is a talent. Hard work is a talent.”

Champions are made in those moments no one else sees — those moments when, insulated from the pressures of competition and the adulation of fans alike, they sweat the tiny details of their craft through relentless repetition, each iteration a baby step towards an ideal of perfection few others can even comprehend. Rahul and Abhinav were unanimous that it was those moments — and not the competition, the glory, the applause — they truly lived for.

“Practice,” said Rahul, “is all about the pursuit of excellence without the stress of competition — and it is those moments, when you are hitting a ball just because you can, that brings you back to the joy of sport and reminds you of why you took it up in the first place.”

Abhinav concurs. “It is when I am in my shooting range, just me, the rifle and the target, that I am truly myself. That is when I am shooting for the pure pleasure of producing the perfect shot, with nothing on the line, with no one watching you. Put 25 pence on the line, and everything changes.”

Abhinav calls it a “meditative experience,” and Rahul latches on to that descriptor. “That is where I see similarities with Abhinav,” he says. “That single minded pursuit of excellence that he talks about, it resonates with me. It is not about the gold medal, but about the quest for the perfect shot, the quest to be the best shooter he possibly can be — that for me is the essence of sport.”

The two spend some time discussing the nature of ‘The Zone’, that Holy Grail of all sportsmen everywhere, and they agree that they cannot put a finger on what it is. At best, says Rahul, what he can say is that there are times, days, when he feels so perfectly at ease with himself, so focused on the moment, that he just knows he will play well, that he will make runs.

“Is that the zone? I don’t know — I only know that it comes rarely, and it comes on its own, and there is no way I have yet found to switch it on and off at will.”

It is, says Abhinav, about “living in the moment” — a phrase so often used in sporting conversations as to have become cliche, but one that is clearly an article of faith for the Olympian. “You only have that one moment, that one brief window of time that comes along once every four years — and you try to put yourself entirely in that moment, oblivious to everything, to the past, the future, the competition lined up alongside, everything. That is why, when I win I feel exhausted, dazed, unable to even comprehend the fact of having won. But when I lose, I am not as tired — because when I lose is when I have not managed to invest everything of me into that one moment, that one perfect shot.”

Two things stood out in that response. The first, most obvious, was the unshakeable conviction; the second, more important, was ‘voice’.

When reading a particularly fine passage in a co-authored autobiography, the almost inevitable question in the mind is, how much of this is the voice of the subject, and how much the voice and skill of his amanuensis. I was at the time a little less than halfway through a book studded with passages of stunning eloquence, and already that question had occurred to me multiple times.

Now, after an evening of listening to the ace shooter speak, at ease extempore, I know: the skill, the craft, is Rohit’s, but the voice is indisputably Abhinav’s.

It is a certain, sure voice; the voice of a man confident in his chosen sphere and comfortable in the knowledge that he has chosen a life of hardship and pain that may — or may not — bring him fleeting glory once in four years (“I know that when I win, it is not going to last too long. So I have no choice but to be humble,” was Abhinav’s matter of fact response when asked about the perils and pleasures of fame).

And that voice comes laced with a top-note of delightfully wry humor (“Like Gordon’s gin,” Rohit said later when I commented on it). Sample these exchanges:

Rohit talks about how fame can affect the balance of even the most level-headed sportsman. “Oh, I am very lucky,” chips in Abhinav. “People read about me only once in four years.”

When asked the inevitable ‘If not shooting, what sport would you have chosen’, Abhinav’s dry response: ‘I would love to captain an IPL team.’ (Rahul, predictably, picks golf. It is, he says, a golf where your quest for excellence is private and personal; you practice on your own; you are focused on finding the perfect balance to play the perfect shot..’)

When a member of the audience talks of the wealth of technical detail in the book and asks Abhinav if he is not worried about revealing the secrets of his craft, just ahead of next year’s London Olympics where he will defend his gold: ‘The only secret I know is that there are no secrets in shooting. But yes, I hope my opponents might get confused.’

There are few purer pleasures than to be able to eavesdrop on two sportsmen of the highest calibre delve into their own minds, almost oblivious to the surrounding public as they seek validation for the monkish existence they have willingly assumed in the pursuit of excellence. That pleasure was ours last night — and it was just the appetizer to the book that was the reason for the evening (Review follows, in a day or two).

Of bandwagons and climbers-on

Still glowing from one of the most enjoyable Sunday evenings I’ve had in a long time — thanks to the Indian hockey team turning the clock back, and putting on display a brand of hockey that combined the style and flair of the sub-continent with the speed and stamina of the European model [The fact that the team nailed a convincing 4-1 win over a strong Pakistan team in its debut outing was merely the icing on that cake]. And equally to the point, they played in front of a full house, with fans cheering and dancing in the aisles with all the vigor normally associated with the IPL or some such tamasha.

The glow got dissipated a bit, though, while skimming through the morning papers. The President of India has felicitated the team. So has the prime minister and sundry politicians at the state and Federal level. Several of them have announced “awards” [If the past is precedent, half or more of these awards will remain at the ‘announcement’ stage, and will never materialize in actual fact]. Even Lalit Modi was tempted to hop on the bandwagon, with an invitation to the team to be his guests at “any IPL match of their choosing”.

What irks me is the sheer opportunism implicit in such statements. Where were these people when the hockey players, not so long ago, were fighting for their basic rights? Where was this ‘support’ for Indian hockey when the ‘authorities’ running the game threatened publicly to field a B team rather than pay the players their dues? No one spoke out then; our hyperventilating news anchors, who on their Twitter streams yesterday spoke of having ‘prayed to the Dhyan Chand statue’ before the game did not, at the time, hold Suresh Kalmadi and his ilk to account for the monies that had clearly been diverted from the pockets of the players.

I hope the team continues to do well; win, lose or draw, I hope they continue to play this brand of hockey, to delight in each other’s skills the way they did yesterday, to play as a unit and remind us all why we loved this game in the first place. And I hope they have the nous to tell opportunistic politicians to go take a hike.

In passing, the Commonwealth Games is nearing. Possibly, Abhinav Bhindra will win a medal. And when he does, the President, the Prime Minister and sundry politicos will clamber on that bandwagon, too. Some TV anchor will tweet about how he prayed before the statue of William Tell. And this will be forgotten. [In related, I hope my friend Rahul Mehra pushes this for all he is worth — one thing he won’t lack is support from the mango person].

Oh — and: Happy Holi. Hope you enjoy the festivities, without the attendant hooliganism. See you guys tomorrow.

Bindra’s whereabouts

Abhinav Bindra demystifies the ‘whereabouts’ clause in the WADA dope code.

“It’s a simple process,” said Bindra. “Once you have a login for yourself, you create your profile by entering in the mandatory location details: a mailing address, your residential address, your usual training address and a likely competition address, for the next three months.”

Fair enough. But then again, when was the last time Abhinav had to (1) Turn up for an ad shoot, with all the delays it entails? (2) Turn up for a sponsor function/event, with ditto?

Strikes me the life of a star cricketer is slightly more complex, and slightly less amenable to the ‘wake up, pee, train, eat, sleep, rinse, repeat’ lifestyle Bindra talks of in this post.

I’m not suggesting it can’t be done — the question I cannot find an answer for is, is it necessary, should it be done, aren’t there other, less invasive, alternatives? [And the answer to these questions cannot be, oh, but so many others have accepted, so what’s the fuss?].