Winning or losing – excerpt from abhinav bindra’s book, ‘a shot at history.’
Winning is no one’s birthright. There are no born winners,natural winners,destined winners. Look at me I was a chicken heart. I am not a natural competitor. On the starting line, I am scared. There was a time I even wanted to cry. Don’t believe the movies because my life is not a sports film. I am not sea biscuit,I am not cinerella man. There is no uplifting soundtrack when I perform,no beautiful blonde watching, no last- minute,dusty,bleeding heroics that leave me victorious. But I learnt enough to win Olympic gold. Learnt to go deaf to everything,including my pounding heart,learnt to go blind to everything,expect the black blob of a target before me, learnt to find calm amongst chaos. When the time to win comes it’s as if a mutiny begins within your body but if you have suffered in practice you don’t fall apart. Pain brings trust. When I shot a 4 in the Olympic final during sighting shots ,it was numbing,but I overcame it because in my mind control had not flown.
Now I’m suffering again, I have to for no one has won Olympic gold in the 10 metre air rifle twice. I want to be that person. I am ready to be stripped naked in front of the world ,which is what it feels like when competition comes. I want to win also because I dont want to lose. I hate to lose because losing some days,important days is like a slow bleed within the chest.
People think I’m cool,in control,unperturbed,but they have no idea. My face is a lie. Losing is hell, losing turns you into a performance artist. From the moment you shake hands with the winner or go mumble a few words in his direction. Gestures matter, this is only fake war after all, but an intriguing theatre is being played out. The winner has a glow on his face and you wonder, is he empathising with me? Probably not. And are you,the loser,really happy for him right at that moment? But you don’t want to show yourself at that moment, don’t want to allow your skin to be peeled away and reveal yourself.
So you wear a mask,it’s like a shutter that descends with defeat. You don’t want to get overwhelmed in public, you don’t want to show disappointment,you dont want to show weakness, you are like some robot in pain. Everyone is watching you. The spectator is suddenly interested student of body language, he wants reaction, you don’t want to give him any. It’s a contest between voyeur and actor. Inside your are falling apart,but the mask imprisons emotion,it’s wont let it out. The ego won’t allow it.
I don’t want to talk when I lose, I have already retreated to my private planet. I don’t want to say a word, not to my parents not to anyone. At the press conference, questions come in a flurry.” what went wrong?” are you disappointed? Is this a setback? The questions are fair, but you are in no mood to give an explanation, you don’t even have an explanation yet, because clarity comes with coolness. So you fall into cliche. You keep the mask on. But then in the privacy of your room,it comes. A physical pain. A useless feeling. The mask is off, the mask is only a postponement of hell.
Winning is slow,laborious,excruciating. It can’t be hurried. The athlete especially when young leaps than stalls. You rise,plateau,rise,plateau, the further you ascend, the harder improvement becomes. To shoot 590/600 is quickly achieved then every additional point can take months a year,three. Then one day 593 is found, it is pleasing but caution lurks an Olympic medals requires at least 597.
And then without warning,it comes. Suddenly you shoot 597, then an entire sequence of 597 s. Exuberance arrives,it’s akin to a feeling of weightlessness,the most profound,private,unfathomable triumph. But even here anxiety is creeping in through the brain. Will it stay? Next morning will it be there? By now both frustrated and fascinated,you have understood there’s no finish line to greatness. The high score has to become routine, it has to be found on fever days, lethargic days,lousy days.
Winning demands honesty a sneering at the short cut. It allows no fooling of the self. I wear one fact like a badge I have never been late for practice. In the gym, in the range, lying is easy. Ah,what the hell, today we will cut practice by 10 minutes. Body’s feeling weary. Just not into it. I’ll do an extra 10 minutes tomorrow. Anyway I’m fit and shooting well. No big deal.
It’s a big deal. It’s about 10 mins more,not less. It’s about swatting away excuse. One day a trainer miscounts my crunches and says good job,ten done. I am in pain there is no one else in the gym, no audience, no media,no competitor only the mirror. Yet I say, no I only did eight. Two more to go. This is being true this makes me feel strong,this is the extra bit that might bring me my medal. Later hours later I walk out of the gym and inhale the sun with victorious weariness. This is unseen world of the athlete, this only athletes understand. It’s been a good day.
Winning in shooting demands I have to be at full,undiluted throttle al the time in competition. I cannot play at 80 percent I cannot cruise I cannot just play the big points well I can’t wait for a lesser bowler to come on. I have to find this best of mine from start to finish. I also know I cannot win all the time no one can,so even in defeat I take something positive away. Athletes need the internal comforting of the self because externally the world especially in India reduces the sport to it’s basics. Medal or nothing. Winner or nobody. When you win once you must win constantly. When you don’t you are dumped as a fluke . Criticism we wear,carry,shrug off,it’s our daily bread. I am not searching for acknowledgement, aloofness is my protection. But younger athletes need rein enforcement from the community to hammer them is to hamper progress.
Elation over winning is easy,but respect for effort in defeat,for the hard journeys made,is often what athletes crave for.it’s why when asked about my favourite athletes I have no names that you know,yet I have many heroes. You will find them speckling the fields of patiala and Bangalore and Pune where national athletes train, endeavouring in anonymity. They warrant respect because winnning is fine,but it is an outcome it is the pursuit of it that is fascinating. It is in committing to discipline, in offering sacrifice,in wearing disadvantage,that heroism lies. It is in the boxer waking at Dawn to punish himself the weightlifter scrapping her throat as she hauls up a bar over head all of them every morning trying to be that simplest things : the best they can be.
The hero is the district winner, the state champion,the national champion,for very medal of any weight requires effort. The hero is the athlete who won’t even win any of this, for not everyone can. Because they still strive,he running for family,she swimming for country,sometimes not given a lucky break,missed by a selector,bereft of sponsor,absent of mentor. But unshakable from their task,taking the leap,confronting shortcomings. This is man at his best, invisible, unacknowledged , still pushing to do the deed amidst hardship. This athlete is never irrelevant ,he has still won. He has pride and it is only found with everything given.
The hardship Indian athlete face, the once-frequent but now reduced traumas of equipment,coaches,facilities,toughens us. Mentally weaker, we aren’t. Mental strategy perhaps we lack. When inevitably pressure arrives like a g-force, like a tractor sitting on your chest, how do you handle it? Indian athletes have the potential to manage it, we are not always taught how to. It’s a skill undeveloped, it hasn’t been planned for, a psychology not adequately worked on.
In Munich, i am caught in a five shot shoot off with nine shooters for two Olympic places. I find courage. I come second. I am on my way to London. I don’t know if I can win there. But I now have the licence to dream, at least, that I can win there. My form needs work, but it’s ok. I am learning. I am Learning to suffer again.