Zagreb ’06 was the Z-turn for Abinav Bindra on his gold-winning journey in Beijing. (File Photo)
India was supposed to start its four-month countdown to the Olympics this moment. But forced into an unprecedented, grim lockdown as the world battles the Covid-19 outbreak, sport is staring at unfathomable despair. Indian athletes though have given the country reasons to rejoice in the past. The Indian Express looks back at a bunch of these memories in 'Those Months, Those Minutes'.
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For someone capable of nit-picking an Olympic gold medal — incidentally his own — Abhinav Bindra sounds suspiciously cheerful and contented about another gold: his 2006 World Championship title at Zagreb.
“It was pretty clever on my part to do that,” he chirps about tricking his mind to totally ignore the fact that he had ensured a quota for the Beijing Games during qualification at the Croatia Worlds. “I didn't allow my mind to learn that I had the quota. There was a longish break in between the relays, so I just left the range after qualification and went to my hotel. It was a conscious decision to not even bother about the quota because I wanted to go all the way in the final,” Bindra says. His retrospective analysis of Zagreb borders on the radiant which is rather rare for Indian sport's Duke of Downplay.
Zagreb '06 was the Z-turn for Bindra on his epic and much-storied journey from Point A (disappointment at the Athens Games) to Point B (triumph at Beijing). He calls it his road to redemption. For the world, it was a mere start of the story that gave India its first and as yet only individual Olympic gold; 24 July, 2006 the midpoint of two Olympics that followed a fairy-tale curve. Bindra, though, reckons he slayed a few Athens demons much before Beijing, travelling almost 1,500 km north by north-west from the scene of his great disappointment to Zagreb.
“It was redemption because it was two years after Athens and I was not in a very good state of mind. In that Indian environment back then, I wanted to prove that I'm not just one more guy with potential who doesn't win big. That I'm not just another choker. Winning is the only licence in sport, and you never make disappointments like Athens public. You just have to shut up and do what's needed," he remembers.
Bindra was a 23-year-old with a stoic mind, and a back that was throwing an almighty tantrum. “I had a lot of good preps before that World Championship and a lot of issues with my back so things were uncertain and I felt unwell,” he recalls. The troublesome spine though tunnelled his focus and for the first and perhaps only time in his two-decade long career, he sensed an underlying tone of quiet confidence.
“It only happened at that World Championship. It was rare and I’ve since tried to recreate that frame of mind,” he says. His technical preparation was process-oriented, but it was his confidence that helped him tide over the backache, and when his body broke into a fever and he had his dodgy back against a solid wall. It's when he first attempted visualisation techniques, though not on a training range.
Bindra had recently begun bio-feedback sessions for the first time, but he created those feelings of competition far away from the range.
“Hours and hours of visualisation actually happened in one corner of my room. I’d recreate how I wanted to feel. The brain would trigger those thoughts and I built a reservoir of feelings which I could call upon in competition. The placebo worked pretty well, eh?” he chuckles of his ability to summon certain feelings at will. Faced with the adversity of a bad back that restricted his training, the champion was developing resilience which he'd eventually take forward to Beijing to rule out all uncontrollables.
Zagreb had decided to turn melting hot that 2006 competition summer. Bindra brought out his adaptability for the once-in-four-years Worlds and stayed malleable.
Back then, it was possible to train at the competition venue for 4-5 days going into the event - Bindra leapt at the chance. He even learnt to sip just the right amount of water. “In those lead-up days, I worked on tactics, timing, speed and hydration. Drinking water can suddenly change everything in shooting,” he explains.
Abhinav Bindra after winning the gold medal in 10m air rifle event in 2008 Olympics. (Source: Reuters)
In a year packed with the Commonwealth Games at the start (he picked two gold in Melbourne), bookended by the Asian Games (which he missed due to his back), Bindra had been clear about prioritising the Worlds. It meant not sweating the World Cup stuff - in China (where Gagan Narang picked India's first quota), Munich and Italy, where more spots were sealed by other Indians. “Zagreb World Championship was my 'goal competition' with all the training building up to that. I shot steady at Beijing (595, ended 9th), and my form was peaking towards this one,” he recalls.
The bad back in 2006 was the first time Bindra was cutting down on training to preserve his torso. The shooting stance is an asymmetrical contortion that loads up one side and sends the other half of the body tautly over-compensating for that imbalanced 10.9 perfection. He had spinal injections stabbing deep into his skin to manage the pain. “A rather large needle,” he recalls a little cheerlessly.
“It’s what opened my eyes to the fact that training can't be only about the shooting range. I became interested in fitness and focussed on pre-hab before rehab: avoiding injury.”
At Zagreb, where he built rare sunshine memories of his otherwise torturous sport and a venue where he's never shot since, Bindra found zluradost: wicked pleasure in his rivals' general misery / or in knowing they were in the same wretched boat as him. Not only was the venue extremely hot, a makeshift tent where shooters rested in between was “very, very hot.” The Indian chuckled in the cramped arena.
“On that range, there was no real space to prepare for the finals. (Usually there's a long patch allotted). Everyone was packed close together so you could watch others prepare. I could see their anxiety and stress from close, before the final. It was good to know everybody's in that s**t,” he says. Bindra was in joint lead going into the finals, having shot 597 (100, 99, 100, 100, 99, 99), and the final turned out to be an exciting not-so-high-scoring affair.
Air rifle's finest characters of that time made it to the finals that sweltering day. There was Chinese Zhu Qinan, the reigning Olympic champion and Austrian Christian Planer - the world record holder from earlier in April - and Romanian Alin George Moldoveanu (pr. Al-een Gio-rgi Moldo-viyan-yu), who kept winning silver at every big event with PV Sindhu sincerity. Russian Konstantin Prikhodtchenko loomed like only Russians can loom - perennially threatening to snatch medals. But the man Bindra was vaguely mindful of was Athens bronze winner Jozef Gonci.
“At that phase in time, he was the world's best shooter,” Bindra recalls. More crucially, the Slovak was standing at Point 4 - next to the Indian at Point 3. Now Point 3 was a fiend from hell for Bindra, the Chandigarh man's dramatic demon from the Athens past. The floor under his feet at Athens' range standing at Point 3 had shaken - and metaphorically sent his life and confidence into one seismic mess of self-doubt. Here he was at Zagreb, again on Point 3, the doleful third platform, summoning every unparliamentary adjective and every saint's stoicism to wave away the fear of that lane.
Of course, it had to boil down to the last shot. Qinan, two points adrift, was stomping closer with precision, but it was the smiling Moldoveanu who needed fending off. “It had been an up and down final and I got 10.7 on the last shot. That last shot at Zagreb was very similar to how I executed my last shot in Beijing (to win Olympic gold). I just went for it, shot aggressive,” Bindra recalls. He'd get his gold with 102.1 in the finals (597+102.1), Moldoveanu again a silver (he upgraded to gold at London, 597 + 101.3) and Qinan (595 + 102.9) would get used to being denied the title by the Indian, picking bronze at Zagreb before being pipped at Beijing. Gonci was fourth (597 + 100.8).
Olympic champion @Abhinav_Bindra went on a silent retreat after winning #shooting gold in Beijing. He says it's not uncommon for successful athletes to go through a mental low phase.@IndianOlympians @ioaindia @ISSF_Shooting pic.twitter.com/SP5tha4LCk
— Olympic Channel (@olympicchannel) May 11, 2019
Bindra's ways are charming when describing what he felt about his opponents. “Yes, Qinan was an Olympic champion and they were all very good. But there was this raging fire within me too and I wanted to beat them all. None of them were my friends. And I didn't like any of them very much at that time either,” he remembers. “It was good competitive shooting, though never a duel.”
It was India's first-ever World Championship title, though Karni Singh and later Rajyvardhan Singh Rathore had picked a pair of bronze medals at the quadrennial world meet. “It was a big deal for me, because there's a certain charm to sealing a breakthrough, to breaking a barrier - winning that gold. India were not complete underdogs in shooting then but it was still rare for an Indian to win a world title,” Bindra recalls, even venturing to say tentatively that it might've been a happier outing for him than Beijing for how it felt.
It was the breaking of the glass ceiling for India though - for two days later, Manavjit Singh Sandhu would win the second gold in Men's Trap and soon after Navnath Fartade would pick the juniors gold in air rifle. “Sometime, lack of success can be a limiting factor for a country so I'm sure it gave others belief they could win too. Personally, I wanted to be the first one to do it,” Bindra says.
The only sore point from the World Championship title quest remains how he was forced to eat a lot of spinach which he frowned at, at that point, while staying in Zagreb. “I didn't like spinach at all back then. It was tough to put it down my throat," he quibbles. But then he just put an eye-popping gold medal around the throat, and having conquered the world, sailed home happily.