Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Shot at History: My Obsessive Journey to Olympic Gold

Published in Stream- July 2013


“Hardwork is a talent” -Abhinav Bindra

Abhinav Bindra’s A Shot at History is an ode to old school principles of preparation, practice and perseverance. Hardwork is the man’s hymn and his story is one of struggle for salvation. And with a co-writer of the calibre of Rohit Brijnath, the book makes for a phenomenal read.

Bindra, arguably, is this country’s most popular non-cricketing athlete thanks to the 100-year national drought ending gold medal he won at the Beijing Olympics. Earned, rather than won, is an appropriate word and through his story, as we learn of his obsession with Olympic Gold, we realise that in a sport where even perfect is not perfect enough, how he almost nullified the hand of chance and surprise during the final at Beijing. Bindra is not a romantic’s sportsman. He is not Federer, or Messi, or VVS. He falls into the club of Dravid, Nadal, Keane, the sloggers, the perfectionists, men wanting in inborn talent but abundantly gifted in will power and the willingness to sweat. And like them, an inherent liking led Bindra towards the game but soon enough, the sporting arena turned from a playground to a classroom where he recognised his limits and learnt to overcome them; And the sport turned from a way of expressing himself to a platform to prove himself.

Bindra has had a rather uneventful life, and his upbringing is not as erratic or turbulent as Agassi’s, as he states in his autobiography, Open. He has a family anybody would envy, money to buy him almost anything he wishes for and the love and support of coaches. He is not forced into the sport by a failed relative trying to live his life through a protege, like Agassi’s father or Nadal’s uncle. But Bindra never had a necessity to impress anyone. And this turned into his motivating factor. That when people from far less affluent economic levels seem to be making the cut, then why him, blessed with everything, cannot do it. This is not a story of the underdog, not a rags-to-riches story but that of the man on the other end of the spectrum. The envied rich kid who people think wins because he can afford the best of everything, equipment, coaches and technology. Bindra’s story, in a way, is the revenge of the lucky guy who wants to prove the world that he is a self-made man too.

Right from the beginning it is made clear that Bindra has at his disposal the best of the outside world. What he lacks, but for his liking for the sport, is a natural grace, a born genius’ radiance. But instead, what he has, Bindra repeatedly says, is a gift for monkish discipline, his obsession with winning and his meticulous, perfectionist attitude. In his single-minded pursuit to be the best shooter, in his lack of social skills, in his lack of all traces of erratic genius, he reminds one of Sampras whose obsession with the process shocked Agassi who once said, “I was surprised by his lack of need for inspiration.”

Bindra is a man obsessed with himself, and the book is an objective analysis of his strengths and weaknesses. Unlike other sports autobiographies, this one has so few anecdotes for two reasons- one because Bindra is really young, 28 years old, and two, he hasn’t had much of a life that isn’t related to shooting. But talk about shooting he does well, guiding the shooting-ignorant Indian reader through the intricacies of the sport. The tone of the book, like the man, is rather understated, humour dry and chapters, not chronological, but more like essays on different aspects of the sport. The only time the book takes a rather loud tone is when it talks about the Indian Official and the anger against this country’s bureaucracy is palpable. Also, a jib is made against the media and public conscious, for their need for heroes but their total lack of support for struggling athletes.

A Shot at History is a great read and credit should go to its co-writer, Rohit Brijnath, a sportswriter of astounding talent who Harsha Bhogle once called, “The greatest Indian sportswriter by a long margin.” Brijnath, who has had stints in various highly reputed sports magazines, uses metaphor cleverly for the lay reader to understand the world of the athlete and has an uncanny ability to transcribe mental states. He is one Indian, who in recent times, has elevated the job of sportswriting to an art form. Infact, the last chapter of the book, talking about the dynamics of sport is vintage Brijnath- elegant and exhilarating. Lyrical prose.

A Shot at History: My Obsessive Journey to Olympic Gold is recommended reading. For not only does it introduce us to the world of shooting, but through the eyes of a man who is not ready to accept anything but victory, inspires us into taking action of our lives. Abhinav Bindra had everything without needing to ask. He did not know what to look for. And his pursuit to find a purpose for his life is as interesting as his diligence in achieving it.

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