Sporting Bindra, Unsporting India

August 14, 2008

Abhinav Bindra gave an interview after his winning effort at the Beijing Olympics, in which he basically underlined the fact that the Olympic medal was just one moment in his life, and that in his sport, the difference between winning and losing is so miniscule, that some luck is inevitable to success.

I think it is an important and non-trivial distinction between wanting to be better at something relentlessly, and wanting to be an Olympic champion. The former is an aspiration, the latter is a reward.

The overwhelming narrative about Abhinav Bindra has focused on his ambition and his success against the odds (tremors, a tampered gun). This narrative misses the point and in constructing a bollywoodesque hero myth, does Bindra serious injustice.

The whole point of Abhinav Bindra's success, as revealed in his interview, is that he wants to be the best shooter that he can be - that he's obsessively interested in training and working hard, enjoys the tough training regimens and has basically committed his life to his sport. The Olympic Medal or the World Championship Medal (both of which he has won now) are merely the biggest prizes on the way.

This is not unique to Bindra.

There is a difference between focusing on a given contest when it is at hand and bringing the entire might of one's powers to it, and aiming for it obsessively — coveting the prize. The point of being a sportsman is not being an Olympic champion. The point is to be the best sportsman you can be. Because we don't seem to understand that, we are unable to respect those athletes who have qualified for the Olympics but may not come away with podium finishes.

I have read more than one news article in the last couple of days which says something to the effect that "Indian athletes have a habit of not performing when it matters". That is not only rude, it is also hopelessly misguided.

There is a whole other aspect of this issue which has been written about ad nauseum, and Dileep Premachandran has this version of it. It refers to unprofessionally run Sports Associations which makes a complete pigs breakfast of managing and helping athletes compete at the international level.That is a bureaucratic problem, and as such is not too difficult to solve.

What is far more important, as Rajaraman points out, is our view of sport and sporting ambition. Cricketers who wake up in the morning in distant suburbs in Bombay and make their way to dawn training sessions on the maidans in town don't do it thinking about playing for India at every stage. They do it because they love playing the sport.

What does this mean? It means that there is inherent value associated with participating in sport — serious, organized sport — that contributes to the sport as well as to the sportsman. School cricket is competitive in Bombay and children who are serious about cricket move to better cricket schools, in order to pursue better cricket. A very famous cricketer once moved from IES English in Bandra to Shardashram Vidyamandir in Dadar in the mid-eighties, so that he would be able to play cricket. A illustrious friend of his travelled 50 kilometers a day to study at the same school so that he could play good cricket as well. Both went on the perform well for Bombay and India.

They did this not because they were driven by the ambition to play for India, but because they were interested more immediately in playing cricket, and in being as good at it as they could be.

Gold and Cash

We have to stop this medieval, feudal practice of showering winners with gold and cash, for it reveals a very poor attitude towards the sport.

All these agencies, which have been falling over each other to announce cash awards to Bindra (these awards range from the absurd to the downright silly), should stop and think about the other Indian athletes at the Olympics. Instead of giving the money to Bindra, they ought to contribute it to a corpus of some sort which athletes can dip into if they want to go somewhere to train or buy expensive equipment.

Bindra's Wikipedia page provides a summary of the awards he has won:

"Bindra was rewarded by various Indian state governments and private organizations for his achievements. These include the state governments of Punjab - Rs 10 million (approx. US $250,000), Harayana - Rs 2.5 million, Maharashtra - Rs 1 million, Karnataka - Rs 1 million, Tamil Nadu - Rs 0.5 million, Madhya Pradesh - Rs 0.5 million and Chattisgarh - Rs 0.5 million."

The Wikipedia page also highlights free life-long railway and airline passes from Indian Railways and Spicejet Airways, respectively.

The states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh have absolutely no connection with Bindra. Neither does Amitabh Bachchan. Bachchan has, in fact, gone one step further, by drawing attention to his silly World Tour in the process.

Everyone wants a piece of Bindra right now. Nobody really cares about the other Indian athletes at the Olympics, neither is anyone really interested in the sport that Bindra competes in. I'm pretty sure that none of the luminaries in question will be able to write or speak one coherent paragraph about the sport of shooting.

Misguided Souls

In short, nobody really cares about sport. Everybody cares about the winner. In doing so, they contribute nothing to the sport - indeed they undermine it at every turn. They are no different from those misguided souls who burnt effigies of Indian cricketers after the world cup. To them, as to those vandals, sport is merely a site of prestige - it has nothing to do with joy or skill or excellence.

The bureaucracy, associations, etc. etc. are all secondary issues. There is a reason why cricket is a thriving sport in India - because it is played on the streets, by middle-class kids with proper bats and balls, and by poor kids with makeshift stumps and handmade balls. Because interest in cricket goes above and beyond India winning or losing. Because Ranji Trophy cricketers can make a living playing domestic cricket in India today. In such an atmosphere, it was a matter of time before India's bare fast-bowling cupboard filled up.

The BCCI manages cricket quite well, but cricket thrives in India because it thrives in communities. That's where other sports have to gain a footing. Otherwise, all we will have is parasites like Amitabh Bachchan clinging on to Abhinav Bindra's gold medal-wearing back.

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Deepak B Jacob
August 14, 2008
03:42 AM

This article makes some very valid points.
It is a shame when people cling on to what is the latest buzz.
"My world-tour was excellent and very well received. However nothing can surpass Abhinav's achievement; and how India is rejoicing." - Amitabh Bachchan
Notice how he tries to spotlight himself through Abhinav!!!

August 14, 2008
04:14 AM

B..A..N..G on target.i had hoped for someone to write such an article.Clearly the others dont play to loose either.Its just that a landmark catches our attention most(a 99 in cricket is extremely lesser than a 100 in cricket)the most.Bindra's interviews pretty much prove his sttitude.Its good to see someone answer so frankly without giving in to sensationalism.The media expects him to give poetic answers but has done well in keeping his cool.But the worst part has been from the media and (sorry to say bindra's father).

August 15, 2008
12:08 AM

""B..A..N..G on target.i had hoped for someone to write such"'

Try banging on the "publish" button/icon only once next time...

August 15, 2008
12:52 AM

Well, I agree with the rewards part. It is really a joke. May be they should have done this before the individual became a champion so that the individual would have the resources for better facilities.

I am not sure about your interpretation in the first part of your post.

"he basically underlined the fact that the Olympic medal was just one moment in his life"

I think that is a realisation with most aspects of life. But he also said this

"I worked for an Olympics medal for 12 years and now I have got it. It's basically like you climb a mountain and you have reached the top and you find that there's nothing there"

This is not like your friends who are travelling to play cricket for the fun of it. This guy was focussed on achieving something and that something was not holding the world record (which may also mean the best) but winning an olympic medal (which sometimes may not mean the best). There is no harm in desiring to win an event that is often considered the pinnacle of sports.

August 15, 2008
09:39 PM

I'd read the whole answer to that first question...

This is the telling point in my view:

***You come from an affluent family, yet you spent days after day, year after year in this pursuit of a recluse. What was the motivation?

***It's just the passion. This sport is very challenging. I'll figure it out some day; have not figured it out yet. There is a new challenge everyday. It's a very addictive sport. When you shoot a really good shot, it feels so very good and you want to do it again and again, over and over again.

Competitions like the Olympics or the World Championships are places where athletes announce their skills and talents and prove to themselves that they are the the best if they win.

All this rubbish about "proving to the world" is the wrong way to look at it in my view. All that is the bollywoodesque myth.

What i take away from an event like the Olympics and the astonishing sporting skill on show there is the absolute obsession that these individuals must have with their sport.

Michael Phelps averaged 75 Kms a week in training in preperation for these Olympics. I know someone who trains 2 Kms a day, once day and i know how good she is as a competitive swimmer.

You can't do that merely because you want to be Olympic Champion. There has to be something more fundamental between you and the sport that you pursue.

August 15, 2008
11:50 PM


There is no dispute over passion at all. I can completely empathise with all sports people. I personally loved sports (7 events) so much I would spend hours and hours (even before board exam days) to whack a ball. Playing cricket or Football was more important than board exams (at least at that time). I think there is a huge difference between a guy like Bindra and me. Both of us love sports, the difference is that this guy strove for excellence and as he confesses, surely targetted the Olympics. However like all of us, as we reach the top, we wonder, so what? Again, this feeling is not unique to him. It happens with all of us all the time. We want something all the time and when we get it, we wonder what the big deal is.

I also think both Lance and Phelps considered winning the TDF/Olympics gold as a very important goal. I would advise you to read Lance's interviews in the early 90s when had not won a single TDF.

August 16, 2008
12:06 AM

Yeah there is a huge difference between you and me on the one hand and a top athlete on the other. "Loving sport" - as a means of entertainment is one thing, because obsessed by it to the exclusion of everything else is another.

Tendulkar played 11 hours of cricket a day during summer when he was in school. He once played matches for 50 straight days in summer..... thats not mere love of Cricket.

In my view this obsession is significant, it goes beyond the average individual's "love" of sport. And it is much more fundamental than Olympics or Test Cricket or anything else.

Armstrong was first obsessed with Cycling - the Tour de France was the pinnacle of his ambition, but im pretty sure every road racing cyclist in Europe dreams of that.

What i think is insane is this obsession with Olympic Gold Medals by people who show absolutely no interest in any of the actual sports in which these medals are awarded.

Do we want to have a fine track and field program in India where we have an arena for lots and lots of athletes all over the country to compete? No... all that is details... every four years, all we are obsessed with is "medal hopes".

Creating myths about our top athlete of being so sort of lone ranger heroic figure... doesn't help at all.

August 16, 2008
12:17 AM


Please donot include me with you :-). I almost ruined my life with my love for PLAYING sports. It is only a miracle (as ALL my teachers, neighbours, friends would say) that I actually went on to pick two degrees (probably also a reflection of how screwed up our education system is :-).

I think people are very interested in the processes as much as medals. I recall in the 80s and 90s when there was a world beyond Cricket, Golf, Tennis and Football that reams of paper were spent on the processes to win a medal. I also recall resources being invested, particularly in coaching in the 90s. So it is not that our society is crazy about winning medals and not bothered about the processes. However, I cannot say the same about our media.

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