With barely days to go for the Tokyo Olympics — the most challenging games in the modern era, athletes have arrived in the city. The games will go ahead without spectators and under a constant shadow of the pandemic. But for the athletes, it is still a golden moment.
Indian fans meanwhile will be hoping that this time finally an exclusive club is breached. As a single member of that club, shooter Abhinav Bindra agrees and admits that he would love some company. The five-time Olympian is the only individual gold medallist the country has produced.
In an interview with Jyotsna Mohan, he talks of India’s chances at the games especially from the strong shooting contingent, his transition out of sport, what pandemic life has been like and whether he still shoots occasionally.
Thanks very much for joining me today Abhinav. So, tell me has it been some years of feeling very lonely at the top?
Yes, I would like more success to happen and would like to see more of our athletes win gold medals of which I am quite hopeful will happen at Tokyo. But it has been five years since I transitioned out of sport, the Rio games were my last Olympic Games and I have let go off the past. Sports taught me a lot, there was a little bit of success in it, had tons of failure as well alongside it and I look back at it differently now.
I look back at sports more dispassionately because I have exited my investment of sorts and I look back at it not in terms of the few medals that I won which hang on a wall but in terms of the relationships I was able to build- relationship with my mom, relationship with my dad, I went with my mom as a 12- year-old boy to Germany and the bond that I was able to build with her staying in a little lonely sports hostel, relationships that I was able to build with coaches, some who I got along with and some who I didn’t get along with, relationships I was able to build with my competitors and of course the memories I had.
That’s what I remember and that’s what I look back at with great amount of fondness, the values that sport instilled in me. I think that is what will remain with me forever. Of course, the outcome is great, but I have let go of the past and I don’t really look back at my success or my sporting career with too much seriousness.
Do you think that exclusive club of yours will be breached at Tokyo Olympics and I am asking from the head and not the heart?
I am going to reply from the heart because I don’t follow the sports world so closely and I watch sports from the prism of a sports fan. I was not the most positive athlete around but as a sports fan I have changed and I have become extremely positive and I look at our Indian Olympic team going to Tokyo with a lot of optimism because never before in the history of our country, have we seen athletes going to the Olympics have such a realistic chance of winning gold medals.
For example our shooting contingent has 15 members, 8 of which are world no 1 or world no 2. Even if 50% of them perform to their potential, we have 4 gold medals right there and it is not just in shooting but in other sports where we have world class athletes who won championships at the elite level going into these games and these athletes also represent a new India, a generation which is far more self- confident and has far more belief than my generation or at least me.
I was far more defensive in nature and a chicken-hearted person but I see a different generation today and I see girls and boys of today not just in sports but also in society with the kind of exposure that was not there earlier. Many things have contributed to that and I as a fan think we will have our best ever Olympic outing.
Won’t self-doubt be natural if you are going for back to back tournaments and are constantly under pressure to perform?
But that is part and parcel of sport and I think it depends on individuals. But you are also making a larger point on pressure athletes have to face and I fully agree that we have unique lives because here we have to constantly face success and we have to constantly face failure and both of them have challenges. Dealing with success is hard, not just failure.
Athletes have physiological pressure in training which is intense and it also has an impact on the mindset and mental health because you are pushing your body to such extreme limits and if you don’t recover physically then it will impact you, mentally as well.
Lack of sleep, impending end of career, constant travel, different time zones- there are a lot of challenges in an athlete’s journey and lot of red flags where we are vulnerable. An athlete is perceived to be almost superhuman and there is a large misconception in society that athletes have that armour and are mentally strong but in reality we are a vulnerable because we live in an uncertain world and some cope better than others but it is challenging all the same.
I am glad you brought up mental health, because that is one thing I was going to bring up as well. Naomi Osaka brought that issue back into the headlines and there was an IOC meeting some years ago that said 33.6% of elite athletes reported symptoms of depression and anxiety and now with the pandemic uncertainty ahead of the games and training disruptions what does our sport ecosystem need to do to adapt and evolve going forward?
Pandemic has been challenging for everyone mentally and I think the only silver lining has been the destigmatising of mental health to a great degree because the naysayers and sceptics of mental health suddenly have issues themselves. People are talking much more openly about mental health and we are seeing the same in the sports world. There are two aspects to mental health in Indian sport and perhaps even organisations.
One is reactive- of getting resources when an athlete suffers. But I think a great amount of effort also needs to be put in prevention and that can only happen when we create environments that are psychologically safe.
There is tremendous pressure on athletes and the whole environment has to be an enabling one, where it is OK to have the courage to pick that athlete up when they are down and continue to see hope in them when they feel hopeless. We are consistently out of our comfort zone and when you do that you give yourself a chance of failing and falling down.
That’s where the work needs to be done, it is also about advocacy and education. As we are barely days from Tokyo I am sure the athletes have to endure uncomfortable questions like ‘go for gold’ or that ‘you are our only hope.’ This is not the type of conversation you should be having with an athlete. That is why it is also about education.
Not sure if many people know that you mentored two refugee athletes who are now headed to Tokyo. How fulfilling was that?
I retired in 2016 and one of my competitors and three time gold medallist from Italy Niccolo Campriani also retired at the same Olympics. We really became friends after our sporting career ended and both of us were highly inspired by the first ever refugee team that took part in the Rio Games, these are human beings who have gone through immense hardship in life and found refuge in sports.
Nico wanted to do something for this cause and set up a programme in Lausanne where he works for the IOC. We started out with a selection of 25 refugees and picked three of them and trained them in our common sport, shooting. It has been an incredible journey where we have seen the true power of sport which lies not in winning gold but in changing people’s lives in a positive manner.
It has been so heartening and fulfilling to see how sport has impacted these three human beings who were low, depressed and been through so much hardship and from one day to another suddenly had a glitter in their eyes and a goal. Now two of them have made it to Tokyo. We aren’t looking at them becoming champions in Tokyo they didn’t get enough time, but they have become champions in life which is perhaps much more important.
Are these kind of initiatives something that you will be involved with going forward? In a sense you can take Abhinav out of the sport but you can’t take the sport out of Abhinav?
No I don’t think so. I am trying to create a new identity for myself as well, my career in sport is over and I don’t want to hold on to that anymore. To move forward I have to almost forget the past. I am trying to set up a business and trying to have a little bit of success in these challenging times. My primary outreach to sport is through my Abhinav Bindra Foundation where we bring science and technology into training.
We have about 60 athletes in our programme from the ages of 11-15 because I want to work at the grass roots and give them access to absolute best global practice. I am also looking at how sport can play a more meaningful role in society and I think it really can because we have a very young population in India, majority of our population is below the age of 30 and they need to imbibe the values of sport.
We have to become a more inclusive and sporting society and there is no better way than sport to instill honesty, integrity and of having the ability to listen to different perspectives with values of friendship and respect something that is rarely seen today.
Before I let you go, a final question, I know you have spoken about your business and that is where you are working hard. What other challenges are you going to take up, what is your next phase going to look like?
I am of course looking at creating a sustainable and meaningful livelihood.
You can watch the full interview on Instagram: @jyotsnamohan_