"Honesty. Integrity. Hard work.”
“Discipline. Playing by the rules. Humility.”
It’s 13 summers since he won Olympic gold and since there’s another Games coming, Abhinav Bindra is engaging in a subject he enjoys. Talking about Olympic values. He’s not saying he reflects them, he’s merely reciting some on request.
The Olympic movement is political, patronising, conceited, but also a gathering from which more than medals is taken. Anyway, we are talking values because in this time of covid-19, what does sport mean? Is it a place of empty rhetoric? What should its practitioners do? Lend a hand? Say something? Unquestionably.
“Solidarity,” says Bindra. There’s another value.
He wrote a piece partly about the Indian Premier League (IPL) in The Indian Express a month ago and wants to clarify something. “I didn’t have a problem with the event but you had to do it in a dignified manner. More quiet, more humble in many ways. It needed to contribute, to play a more direct and meaningful role. Cricket enjoys that privilege in this country.”
In an Olympic summer, Bindra would rather talk about anything other than his own Olympic summer of 2008. “I don’t know that person,” he drawls about the champion shooter who inhabited his body. If you ask, he will say his life was narrow. If you push, he will venture that he didn’t realise his potential.
Wait, you underachieved? “Possibly.” He was close in Athens, 2004, and Rio, 2016, yet a medal eluded him.
Bindra is an unsparing study in athletic ageing because he thinks he hasn’t really made a contribution yet. So he stands up for refugees. He’s an advocate for the mental health of athletes. He takes on a wrestler on Twitter for, he says, turning his back on Olympic values. He has worn a gold medal but now he’s trying on something more intriguing. A conscience.
He’s not the only Indian athlete who has one but it’s what you just hope your only individual Olympic champion will be. Stand-up guy. Speaking-out guy. Look-up-to champ. Who knows that alphabetically, and otherwise, principle precedes profit.
Bindra isn’t the young man I did a book with in 2009. That person was great at one thing but otherwise an unformed, singular creature. “For 22 years I had no life balance,” he says. “I developed only as an athlete, not as a human.”
Obsessives are fascinating because their worlds resemble tunnels. They see only a single light and follow it like an unwavering, one-eyed moth. From single-mindedness is excavated precious things, gold for instance, and yet Bindra, now 38, has emerged to search for the bigger picture.
Once out of sport, athletes get lost, for the field is home and purpose. Fame gets you a table at a restaurant but not direction. “I have been trying to develop other parts of myself which don’t come naturally,” says Bindra, who retired in 2016. “Make more friends. Have more hobbies. As an athlete, I was an explorer of myself, now I need to explore the outside world.”
Champions own a measure of conceit but real life is foreign territory not easily conquered. What is my purpose, he wondered. What life experience do I have to speak on anything? What should I stand for?
So he learnt, he wandered, he read. He aided fellow shooter Niccolò Campriani’s project to take three refugees, who might never have seen a 10m air rifle, and make them eligible for selection to the Olympics. In extending his hand, he was recognising a truth.
“I realised how lucky I have been to simply play sport. I hadn’t encountered their challenges, of not having an identity, or a nationality, or being driven away from a land and not knowing if I would survive a night. It taught me to be grateful.”
He was drawn to the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC’s) mental health working group and this was fitting because almost no sport is so solitary, so inward, so neurotic in its fascination with tiny margins, as shooting. Sport, anyway, has a dangerous mythology to it, wherein champions are proposed as an indestructible tribe, but he never subscribed to this nonsense.
“This IOC group was important to me because I didn’t deal with my own mental health well enough. People tend to think a gold medal means happiness and they put everything in one basket. There’s also this perception that athletes are armour-plated and there is a stigma attached to weakness.”
And then during the catastrophic second wave in April, he felt he had to say something. Just a solidarity with the suffering. “It was hard to be silent,” he said. “There was so much misery. It has been difficult to watch, and to watch helplessly.”
So he tweeted about ICU beds, plasma, vaccines, front-line heroes. He wrote an article about empathy, nationalism, rules and athletes speaking out. He was a self-aware voice who was recognising both his privilege and his platform.
Bindra is imperfect but he tries. You can disagree with his stance, but he will take one. He doesn’t duck responsibility or take advice from an agent on what would be the judicious, brand-wise thing to say. He’s a compassionate, average-sized human, not a giant, bland billboard.
This summer will not be remembered as an Olympic summer but as the summer of mourning. A summer when many of us saw the heroic from the unknown and silence from heroes. A summer when I no longer could admire people I once did.
We all have distinct views on the hero business and diverse measuring sticks for athletes. But I will pick this older, still somewhat inflexible, learning, greying Bindra. It has been a long time since he put his gun down. But he still hasn’t forgotten how to stand steady and take a position.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.