A discussion between Abhinav Bindra and Rahul Dravid put this book on my radar. They spoke of the mental state of the athlete at his peak performance, when he’s performing on autopilot mode, where the mind is shut off and things are happening through instinct. The co-author’s name – Rohit Brijnath, put the book into my wishlist.
Bindra’s case of winning the Olympic gold was very Indian, in that he had worked despite the system and managed it. At no point does he make any excuses or apologies for it. He is clear that his dad was rich and he could afford those coaches or the range at home, which he points out, as an example about the system, is better than the national one in Bangalore where the rest of the shooters had to train before major events. This is no Cinderella Man fairytale of one man rising against the odds and the system and having a fairytale finish. This is just sport at its grittiest.
Bindra starts out by admitting that he was no gifted child prodigy. A self-confessed introvert, he had no interest in most things and not many friends in school either, until he was drawn to guns, mainly because of the solitude it offered where he could withdraw into his own mind, something that came naturally to him. In a way, shooting was made for his kind. He compares himself not to the Tendulkars or the Federers, but more to the Rahul Dravids and the Steve Waughs who thrived only on grit, crazy work ethics and the ability to concentrate for hours like a Yogi.
Here’s a man who was not even athletic, with short-sighted eyes (he wore lenses with power -2.75, but got a Lasik done after the Beijing Olympics), going after the Olympic gold just because that was the highest anyone in his field could aim for. And the going after borders on an obsession and most of the book is about that. How he had to work through spinal stress, unnatural positions thanks to his lack of athleticism, eventually opting for lipo-dissolve for his hips.
Shooting involves 60 shots in 105 minutes to qualify for the finals (where 8 shooters make it). Each shot is for 10 and you need to be 595+ to get there. The bullseye is a 5mm circle and is 10m away! In the finals each gets 10 shots which go into decimals. So even if you shoot a bullseye, they measure how close is it to the centre of the centre and mark you on 10.1-10.9! This gets added and the person with the highest score wins.
The best part of the book is that he doesn’t go too much into system-bashing, keeping a chapter out separately for it. If you are interested in the mental processes and make-ups of athletes, this book is pure ecstasy. He repeatedly talks of the ‘zone’ and what it takes to get there, how people start out and how much it takes to get to the top. Most of the stuff is kinda known if you have been into playing at any level. This is not a game like cricket where he says he has to deal with expectations from the crowd. Most of the time it’s his own obsession and expectations that drive him on or even pull him down. The repeated stressing of the mental makeup and his attempts at getting it right once he knows he can shoot in the 590+ range makes for fascinating reading.
There is no stopping after getting the Olympic medal. He goes through what most Olympic shooters go through after they achieve their medals – the post war syndrome. He describes in detail the depression he went through and how he got out of it to eventually qualify for the 2012 London Olympics. The process where he starts off shooting because he loves it, before it turns into an obsession for the Olympics and the depression that follows the winning is beautifully etched out. How he gets out of it is eventually by turning to the first part, where the itch to lay hands on a gun gets him restarted, before the competitive spirit puts the next Olympics back on track. In a way this reminds one of Dravid’s Bradman oration where he talks about those moments in the cricket field where despite the competition and the stress in the middle, you realize moments where you feel the pleasure of the game, the main reason why you started playing the game.
This is a beautiful book, a journey through an athlete’s mind as he goes after his obsession to achieve the highest glory and standard his sport can offer. Rohit Brijnath’s style hangs around like a ghost throughout and makes the prose and the reading top-notch. There are liberal references to different sports like Ali-Frazier matches which have Brijnath written all over them. Don’t miss this for anything!
Leaving you with a paragraph from the book:
The medal used to be in my mother’s room. Now it’s in a case with my Olympic bib and score sheets in a room reserved for my trophies. People ask me if I like to touch the medal now and then. Not really. I went through the pain to get it, I won it, experienced it, felt the journey. The medal is for the moment, reward for two hours of shooting. But for the athlete it’s not the moment of victory that matters, for it’s taken him more than two hours. It’s taken four years, probably eight, it’s taken 250 international flights, 600 moments of ‘I can’t do this’, hundreds of technical changes, fifty tastes of defeats, four to five nervous vomits. It’s taken internal struggle, psychology books, patient coaches. It’s a dream taken and dipped into sweat to become reality. All that is more meaningful to the athlete.