Just days away from the Tokyo Olympics – the toughest games of the modern era, athletes have arrived in the city. The games will take place without spectators and under the constant shadow of the pandemic. But for athletes, it’s still a golden moment.
Meanwhile, Indian fans are hoping that this time, finally, an exclusive club is broken up. As a single member of this club, shooter Abhinav Bindra agrees and admits he would like some company. The five-time Olympian is the only individual gold medalist the country has produced.
In an interview with Jyotsna Mohan, he talks about India’s chances at the games, especially the strong shooting contingent, his transition out of the sport, the pandemic life and whether he still shoots occasionally.
Thank you very much for joining me today Abhinav. So tell me, have I been feeling very lonely at the top for years?
Yes, I would like more success to happen and I would like to see more of our athletes win gold medals, which I hope will happen in Tokyo. But it’s been five years since I left sport, the Rio Games were my last Olympic Games and I gave up on the past. Sport has taught me a lot, there has been a little bit of success, there have been tons of failures as well and I look at it differently now.
I watch sport more impartially because I kind of gave up on my investment and I’m looking at it not in terms of a few medals that I won and hung on a wall, but in terms of the relationships that I have. was able to establish with my mum, relationship with my dad, I went with my mum when I was 12 in Germany and the bond that I was able to forge with her by staying in a small lonely sports hostel, relations that I was able to weave with the coaches, some with whom I got along and others with whom I didn’t get along, the relationships that I was able to build with my competitors and of course the memories I had.
This is what I remember and this is what I rethink with great affection, the values that sport instilled in me. I think that’s what will stay with me forever. Of course, the result is great, but I let go of the past and I don’t really look at my successes or my athletic career too seriously.
Do you think your exclusive club will be violated at the Tokyo Olympics and I ask with the head and not the heart?
I will answer from the bottom of my heart because I am not that close to the world of sport and I watch sport through the prism of a sports fan. I was not the most positive athlete around, but as a sports fan I have changed and become extremely positive and I watch our Indian Olympic team go to Tokyo with a lot of optimism because never Before in our country’s history, have we seen athletes who go 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 though 50% of them are performing to their potential we have 4 gold medals there and it’s not just in shooting but in other sports where we have world class athletes who have won elite level championships ahead of these games and these athletes also represent a new India, a generation that has a lot more self-confidence and conviction than my generation or at least me.
I was much more defensive by nature and had a chicken heart, but I see a different generation today and I see girls and boys today not only in sports but also in society with the kind of exhibition that didn’t exist before. A lot of things have contributed to this and as a fan I think we will have our best Olympic outing ever.
Won’t doubt be natural if you take part in back-to-back tournaments and are constantly under pressure to perform?
But it’s part of the sport and I think it depends on the individual. But you also emphasize the pressure that athletes have to face and I totally agree that we have unique lives because here we have to constantly face success and we have to constantly face failure. and both have challenges. Dealing with success is difficult, not just failure.
Athletes experience intense physiological pressure during training and this also impacts state of mind and mental health as you push your body to extreme limits and if you do not physically recover it will also affect you. mentally.
Lack of sleep, impending end of career, constant commuting, different time zones – there are a lot of challenges in an athlete’s journey and a lot of red flags where we are vulnerable. An athlete is seen as almost superhuman and there is a big misconception in society that athletes have this armor and are mentally strong, but in reality we are vulnerable because we live in an uncertain world and some do better. than others, but it is a challenge for all the same.
I’m glad you brought up mental health, because that’s something I was going to touch on as well. Naomi Osaka brought this issue back to the headlines and a few years ago there was an IOC meeting that said 33.6% of elite athletes reported symptoms of depression and anxiety and Now with the pandemic uncertainty ahead of games and training interruptions, what does our sports ecosystem need to do to adapt and evolve in the future?
The pandemic has been a mental challenge for everyone and I think the only bright side has been the destigmatization of mental health to a large extent as opponents and skeptics of mental health are suddenly in trouble themselves. People talk a lot more openly about mental health and we see the same in the world of sport. There are two aspects to mental health in Indian sport and perhaps even in organizations.
One is reactive – to get resources when an athlete is in pain. But I think a lot of effort also needs to be put into prevention and that can only happen when we create psychologically safe environments.
There is enormous pressure on the athletes and the environment as a whole has to be a conducive environment, where it is normal to have the courage to pick up that athlete when he is down and continue to see hope. in him when he feels desperate. We are constantly out of our comfort zone and when you do this you give yourself a chance to fail and fall.
This is where the work needs to be done, it is also about advocacy and education. As we are only a few days from Tokyo, I am sure the athletes have to endure uncomfortable questions like “go for the gold” or “you are our only hope”. It’s not the kind of conversation you should be having with an athlete. That is why it is also about education.
I don’t know if many people know that you mentored two refugee athletes who are now heading to Tokyo. How to accomplish this?
I retired in 2016 and one of my competitors and three-time Italian gold medalist Niccolo Campriani also retired at the same Olympics. We really became friends after the end of our sports career and we were both very inspired by the very first refugee team that took part in the Rio Games, they are human beings who went through immense difficulties in the life and have found refuge in sport.
Nico wanted to do something for this cause and set up a program in Lausanne where he works for the IOC. We started with a selection of 25 refugees and selected three and trained them in our common sport, shooting. It was an incredible journey where we saw the real power of sport which is not in winning gold but in changing people’s lives in a positive way.
It was so heartwarming and gratifying to see how sport impacted these three human beings who were weak, depressed, and went through so much difficulty and who, from one day to the next, suddenly had a spark in eyes and a goal. Now two of them have arrived in Tokyo. We don’t see them becoming champions in Tokyo, they haven’t had enough time, but they have become champions in life, which is maybe a lot more important.
Are these kinds of initiatives something you will be involved in in the future? In a way, you can take Abhinav out of the sport, but you can’t take the sport out of Abhinav?
No, I do not think so. I’m also trying to create a new identity for myself, my sports career is over and I don’t want to hang on to that anymore. To move forward, I almost have to forget the past. I’m trying to start a business and have some success in these tough times. My main sports awareness is through my Abhinav Bindra Foundation, where we integrate science and technology into training.
We have about 60 athletes in our program aged 11 to 15 because I want to work at the grassroots and give them access to absolute world best practices. I am also looking at how sport can play a more meaningful role in society and I think this is really the case because we have a very young population in India, the majority of our population is under the age of 30 and they have to be. ” imbue sport values.
We need to become a more inclusive and sporty society and there is no better way than sport to instill honesty, integrity and to have the ability to listen to different perspectives with values of friendship and to respect something that is rarely seen today.
Before I let you go, one last question, I know you talked about your business and this is where you work hard. What other challenges will you face, what will your next phase look like?
I of course seek to create a sustainable and meaningful livelihood.
You can watch the full interview on Instagram: @jyotsnamohan_