On August 11, 2008, Abhinav Bindra took his shot at history. It was a 10.8, the final in a series of 10 almost perfectly-executed shots of ten-point-something. It was then the highest final shot in Olympic 10m air rifle history.
10.7, 10.3, 10.4, 10.5, 10.5, 10.5, 10.6, 10.0, 10.2 were the shots that preceded it. A final score of 104.5, adding to the 596 in qualification. But for the sport-loving population of India, these were not the numbers that mattered. It was No 1 – India’s first ever individual Olympic gold medal. It was a day sport lovers won’t forget, when the Indian tricolour was raised and the national anthem was played at the Beijing Olympics.
In the decade since then, Bindra’s momentous feat has been described countless times – in conversations in newsrooms and shooting ranges, in hostels, offices, and social media. It has been recounted in his own words and Rohit Brijnath’s inimitable prose in his autobiography A Shot At History: My Obsessive journey to Olympic Gold.
But even with every retelling, the awe of the achievement is not diminished. It is still spoken about in terms of pride. Maybe because it was the first individual gold and the first medal of the colour for India since 1980, when the Indian hockey team last stood on top of the podium. Maybe because in the 10 years and two Olympics since 2008, India have not won another gold.
For many who watched it, that podium photo with a composed, smiling, bespectacled Bindra holding his gold medal was the most striking shot of the day. For Bindra, though, there is no one standout moment because it was the journey to the gold that is the most rewarding aspect: the “obsessive” journey that included commando training, overcoming his fear, sleepless nights, a last-minute fault in the rifle, a World Championship gold and memory of the Athens Olympics failure.
“An Olympic gold medal is a culmination of a lot of work for a long period of time,” Bindra told Scroll.in on the eve of the 10th anniversary of his feat. “How I approached my career, how I approached each day, trying to put my best foot forward. I like to say that the Olympics, for an athlete, does not happen once is four years, it is pretty much every day.”
Changed the attitude of Indian athletes
In the 10 years since, a lot has changed for Indian sport, as it has for the introverted shooter who became world and Olympic champion. The biggest change, Bindra said, is in the self-belief and attitude of young athletes today.
“They are so very aspirational. Even the youngest of athletes starting out want to win a gold medal at the Olympics. That has been a very positive change,” the 35-year-old said. “When I was competing we were from a different generation, where we were more defensive. But now that it has been done, people are more competitive and have far more self-belief and that is something very fulfilling and satisfying for me.”
In his autobiography, Bindra compares his gold to the breaking of a barrier. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s medal at Athens in 2004 had changed him, he said, as the silver-mark was breached. Similarly, his gold broke down another barrier, as more athletes aim for the top of the podium, and not just the final.
Ask him if he thought Beijing would still be India’s only individual gold a decade later, he said “no” flat out, but went on to offer some positive outlook. “I believe we will win more individual golds,” he said. “We came close, unfortunately it hasn’t happened. I like to think that in sport, yesterday never counts; we have to keep looking out to the future.
“That’s what we are doing now – we are coming out with something to inspire young athletes and use this moment, this achievement of mine to motivate them to go out there and win their gold,” Bindra said of a video he has released in association with JetSynthesys to mark the 10th anniversary of his gold medal.
Back in 2008, drained after the emotional day, he didn’t fully understand the significance of his medal and the impact it made back home. But with the benefit of hindsight, he knows that Beijing 2008 was a big moment for Indian athletes.
“When you win it, you don’t realise or recognise it,” he said. “But over time, you do. It is something we as a country were waiting for and it happened on that particular day. The glass ceiling had to be broken, someone had to do it and I feel fortunate that I was the one who was able to do it. Now that it has been done, we are hoping that a lot more people are able to do it.”
And an important step towards that, Bindra believes, is failure. His failure to clinch a medal in 2004 after reaching the final with an Olympic record score haunted him for years. At Rio 2016, he missed the podium by a margin of just 0.5 points. But he sees these moments with a beatific lens.
“Failure is very important,” he said. “I think you can only have big achievements through failure. It makes you stronger, gives you the desperation to do well. If failure is taken in the right spirit, it will propel you to work even better and work even harder and that’s what I tried to convert my failures into. I failed certainly more times than I succeeded and I decided to use those experiences to make me a better athlete.”
This sage-like attitude is considered one of Bindra’s trademarks. Even when he was on the Olympic podium, his serene expression was described as “ever-calm” by the media. But was he actually that calm when he received his gold? Turns out, he was more drained.
“Winning is a very exhausting experience,” he replied, candidly. “It took a lot out of me to win then. More than anything it was one of the most satisfying moments of my life because I was able to fulfil a goal that I had worked on for 15 years of my life and that immense amount of satisfaction and the feeling that I felt, of being able to do it, that in itself was the most special thing. That was the greater celebration actually,” he said.
Befitting celebration for someone like Abhinav Bindra, indeed.