Abhinav Bindra became an overnight sensation after a Gold medal finish at 2008 Beijing Games - India's first individual Gold medal at the Games. A whole generation of shooters emerged after the triumph, following the footsteps of Bindra - to script a never-written chapter in Indian sports.
Leaving aside the political mishaps which led to debates all year round, August 11, 2008 was a rare exception where my fellow citizens in Kolkata dedicated a day to the greatest triumph by an Indian athlete at the Olympics – Abhinav Bindra, thanks for making the 30-minute journey from my school to home on that August afternoon – the most memorable in my 13-year life with the uniform. No sooner than I reached home that I barged into my room and switched to a news channel to get a glimpse of the ‘man of the hour’ on the podium, the tri-colour was flying high and the national anthem echoing in all corners of the shooting range in Beijing. Headline: Abhinav Bindra clinches Gold medal in Men’s 10m Air Rifle!
Surprisingly, when someone googles about Abhinav Bindra on Wikipedia, it titles the shooter as an ‘Indian Businessman,’ but the Gold medal gives him the identity which the former title would never be able to. India’s tryst with a Gold medal at the Games started in the early half of the 20th century with the hockey team clinching as many as eight Yellow medals, but 2008 was the time an individual managed to pull off the coup, making it a groundbreaking one. An entire generation of shooters thronged on the circuit in the aftermath of Bindra’s triumph. The 2012 London Olympics saw India clinch two more medals in shooting (Vijay Kumar and Gagan Narang with the honours).
Going along the lines of ‘Rome was not built in a Day,’ the journey to the podium started decades before its actual occurrence. Albeit many of us aspired to be an Olympic hero someday, so did the boy from Dehradun, but there’s a difference. While others might not have made proper efforts to make it a reality, the latter remained focused as he grew up, like a dart facing the bull’s eye. His determination for glory knew no bounds as was evident when he started shooting at a very young age and in order to get the best facilities, he ended up training in Germany most of the time.
As per natural norms, the efforts had to pay-off and his participation in the 1998 Commonwealth Games at a tender age of 15 paved the way for a story in the making. Medals followed, accolades overflowed halfway through the first decade of the 21st century, but the best was yet to come. And in 2008, it did, in the most miraculous fashion. But, that win was not his own, it was India’s victory and believe it or not, that win pumped up athletes from all disciplines and triggered a self-belief amongst themselves that – a Gold medal was well within their reach.
With due respect to Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s Silver win in the 2004 Athens Games, Abhinav Bindra’s win created much more impact in Indian sports, especially in shooting – which was taken seriously following the historic feat. While many thought the elite treatment Bindra received with training facilities at his residence acted as a catalyst, it would be foolish to undermine his hard work. If that was the case, the Gold medals would have taken a regular route to wealthy households. But all said and done, shooting is an expensive sport and the price had to be paid to unlock the success route.
Apjit Bindra (Abhinav's father), who has been through his son’s tremendous journey, once stated in an interview, "I would say that (for) a person at his level, a personal shooting range is not a luxury but a requirement. He has to train at odd hours. And that keeps him totally focused on the sport and we were very happy that we provided him with this facility so that he is only a few yards away from his home and could shoot without being disturbed and without having to go out and travel to shooting ranges". One thing was evident – shooters need proper infrastructure to excel in the discipline, there was no alternative to that.
The inflation of shooters in the contingent from nine during the Beijing Games to 11 four years later hardly reflects the changing landscape of the sport in India. Taking the case of Jitu Rai, coming from an army background, braving initial hiccups managed to win a string of medals in major events including the Commonwealth Games, World Cup, and Asian Games. Joydeep Karmakar, a former Olympian, set up his academy in Kolkata which has been a revolutionary project, to say the least. Young Mehuli Ghosh is a product of the institution and is one of the brightest prospects for India in the future.
Seven out of the twenty-six Gold medals in the 2018 Commonwealth Games were claimed by Indian shooters – the apparent fact, but the making of it has always been in the shadows. Rigorous training, putting in extra yards, proper facilities have all added to the outcome. If Abhishek Verma eavesdropped on a couple of people talking about a professional shooting circuit at the gymnasium; his shooting career would have been a distant reality. At the ripe age of 28, Verma played his first big-ticket event at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, grabbing a Bronze, following up with top podium finishes in the Beijing and Rio de Janeiro World Cup in 2019.
Even Abhinav Bindra could not deny the fact that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics shooting contingent (15 members) is head and shoulders above any of the lot India fielded before. "Never have we ever gone to an Olympics with such bright chances. We have 15 athletes and each one of them, who have qualified, is capable of winning a medal," said the Gold medallist. While Abhishek Verma’s late entry to the shooting circuit proved yet again that age is just a number, shooters like Saurabh Chaudhury (17 years) and Manu Bhaker (18 years) are on the other side of the spectrum. The top place finishes in the 2019 ISSF World Cup with 21 Gold medals was proof of how India is taking giant strides in shooting. Not to forget, Rahi Sarnobat and Saurabh Chaudhary's Gold medal triumphs at the 2018 Asian Games.
Well, in the current pandemic situation, with lockdown everywhere, the shooters are finding it hard to continue their training cause their ammunition is on the brink of getting exhausted any time soon. The professionalism has hit such a high that sitting idle would mean an opportunity lost for the preparation ahead of the Olympics, which has been shifted by a year. As a matter of fact, 95% of the top shooters depend on Italian companies for supply of ammunition and considerable transit time is also required for its arrival. With everything coming to a halt, the shooters might find themselves in a fix. But one thing for sure, whenever the Olympics takes place, shooters are expected to fire up the medals tally.