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“Can”. Three-letter word. Has no great personality. Slang for toilet. Painted by Andy Warhol. Worth five points in Scrabble. Then you look again. “Can” has muscle. It means to have the ability, the skill, the belief. It’s knowing ‘how to’. It’s having the ‘power to’. It’s worth more points than you can estimate in competition. “Can” is what Abhinav Bindra, straight-shooting speccie with a sense of irony, helps India with. He’s not the first one to dismantle barriers because even in the 1920s and 1930s an army officer called Dhyan Chand and his buddies called Leslie Hammond, Feroze Khan, Jaipal Singh Munda were telling the world that India could do some stick-ball magic. But Bindra, with the heartbeat of a mortician and single-mindedness of an assassin, wins India’s first individual Olympic gold in 2008, and it should be hung in a sports museum as ribboned proof. That Indians can. But to understand “can”, you first got to meet “can’t”. Got to wander down a century of struggle or however long it took.
Got to remember all the baggage of doubt that athletes had to carry. Got to remember all those who tried, who didn’t know better, who got intimidated but who fought, who had no history to wear as armour, who lived in an India before Google, when 400m training schedules couldn’t just be downloaded from the Internet and so Milkha Singh had to go and meet Charles Jenkins, the best 400m runner in the world, at the 1956 Olympics and through an interpreter, in broken English, ask for his training schedule. And he got it. One sultry morning in 2018, Rahul Dravid sat in his garden, as unbending once as the trees that form a canopy, and talked about small things. All the little pieces that make up a culture, that change an athletic people, that bring belief, that create a world of “can”. His sons were around, and the elder one, Samit, plays cricket and when he wants a bat, he asks for an SG one. Made in India. Meerut, to be precise, in the northern heart of chaotic Uttar Pradesh, where even cricketers from overseas come for their bats. On the surface, this seems inconsequential, but once, bats primarily came from England. Names like Gray-Nicolls and Duncan Fearnley, names you uttered with adequate respect. Phoren maal, bhai.
These were superior bats and thus, by inference, so were their cricketers. Belief comes in bit parts, like 3000-piece jigsaws fitted together over time. The smallest thing is a valuable piece. Young cricketers in a millennial generation have agents and plan their professional careers, but in an earlier time, a single call from a sponsor had meaning beyond money. “If Reebok sponsored you,” says Dravid, “it mattered. It meant they believed in you. It meant, I must be good. ” But till players and teams collect all those pieces, inferiority is an easy coat to wear. My God, Dravid remembers thinking after he saw the exercises the South Africans were doing in the 1990s, how far ahead are they? How can we? People snigger now, those guys were so dhila, so soft, but that wasn’t an India of cricketers with designer dark glasses and seven credit cards who walk into English hotels as if they own them and just actually might. This was another India, a less brash one, still finding its confidence, its place, its voice, and so many of us going abroad in the 1980s wore that hesitancy of the untravelled and the unsure, armed with our thin packets of precious travellers cheques, sambar packets as rescue, uncertain of our accents, asking if “veg milega?” (Is vegetarian food available?), clad in clothes a few fashion cycles old, walking by Oxford Street shops in a dazzled daze. Athletes reflect the society they live in and, in those years, they too were daunted. They’d look at everyone else’s fancy equipment, gyms, facilities, coaches, trainers and tracksuits while eating a scientifically approved diet of McDonald’s burgers because it was the cheapest place to eat, and shrink inside. Confidence all curled up. How do you beat them if you don’t belong? If sport is played in the mind, then it’s also where suspicion rests of one’s own talent. Indians anyway weren’t conditioned then to voice their ambition. No one wanted to look too big for boots they didn’t even have. Well, not the nice ones their friends sometimes got from abroad. On the plane to England in 1996 for his first Test tour, Dravid was all freshly-shaved enthusiasm, thinking about whether a series could be won, till a senior, carrying the wisdom of the practical, said: “Let’s try and win one Test”.
Remember the Titans is a movie about the semi-miraculous, this was the real modest world of the Indian athlete. It’s not that Asian athletes couldn’t win medals at the Commonwealth Games, or score centuries at Lord’s, but they were understandably inhibited at crucial times. “In sport,” explained Dravid, “the margins are so small that any inferiority is magnified under pressure. And so if things got tough then we didn’t have enough history behind us to show we could do this. ” History has a heft we can’t calculate, a weight we can’t gauge, an effect that’s impossible to estimate. Bindra, at 18, goes to America to train at the US Olympic Training Centre at Colorado Springs and his education is not just on stance but psychology. India had won eight Olympic golds till then, all in hockey; America had over a thousand golds and hundreds of heroes and it’s as if the sporting world was there just for them to conquer. This place was the Kingdom of Can and in Bindra’s book, A Shot At History, he describes this: “Confidence was like some birthright here and they approached the Games without the cynicism whose fumes athletes are forced to inhale every day in sporting India. The Americans truly believe they are the best, and luckiest, country. They weren’t going to the Olympics carrying awe and content just to try, they were going to the Olympics to succeed, make history, be remembered. It was an adventure, a collective one, and I was awed by the importance they gave to team and the building of it. Great athletes littered the corridors. Hey, here’s Apollo Ohno, the legendary skater, there’s Matthew Emmons, the to-be Olympic hero, there goes a younger, yet-to-assert himself Michael Phelps. Their vitality stunned me and more importantly, infected me through a sort of osmotic effect. Watch, copy, learn, imbibe. If you train with them, and beat them, the discovery is beautiful and immediate: I can be great, too. ” India had some of its own history, some legends, some advance scouts. But no one had won individual Olympic gold, no path had been cleared, no culture of “can” created. People used to say, this writer as well: one billion people, no individual gold medal? For Indians it was a terrific lament and for outsiders a useful insult, but in truth, in a struggling nation full of hardship, where space was scarce, fields few, coaches rare, sports science in its infancy, academics essential, parents disapproving, how many people could actually play sport and then pursue it competitively? It was always a long way from a billion. It wasn’t only the facilities and insufficient role models, but also a lack of striving. Indian insecurity often turned to apathy. Back home, people mocked athletes as going to major Games to shop and it was unfair, cynical, but not altogether untrue. Badminton star Pullela Gopichand, a driven man who might have been a stern, dutiful sergeant major in a previous life, said, in his direct fashion: “Much of the teams (in the past) were not in tune with what was happening in the world of sport.
They were happy to be there, taking photographs and exchanging pins. Tons of people wanted to go to the opening and closing ceremonies and now you have to push people to stay back for the closing ceremony. ” Athletes had earned their way there but some saw no value greater than participation. Victory — and this was not meaningless — was in getting there. “Five or 10 per cent then”, said Gopichand “actually thought of winning a medal. Now 90 per cent or so are doing all they can to win a medal. Maybe they won’t win a medal but everybody’s disappointed they didn’t. ” Once athletes shrugged after defeat, now they suffer. Awe needs a few visits to rub off. First time you go to Lord’s or Wimbledon you can be stilled by history. All those boards, those statues, those names, that legend. Second time, you might recognise that the wickets even at Lord’s are only 22 yards apart and the net at Wimbledon is the same height as your local club in Chennai. But once, says Gopichand, athletes hardly travelled, maybe two tournaments a year abroad, maybe four, and it was not enough to find the necessary comfort, to figure out the poster on your wall was no caped hero but just another nervous human. Said Gopichand: “People idolised them so much they couldn’t beat them. ” But there were always exceptions. Always people like Sunil Gavaskar, Ramanathan Krishnan, Prakash Padukone, Michael Ferreira, always exceptions whose desire blunted fear, whose drive overrode insecurity. Who forgets Gavaskar against the West Indies teaching us the difference between height and stature? Who forgets Padukone and his wrist sewn together with silk thread? They don’t fear as much as the others.
Why weren’t you intimidated, I asked Gopichand, the All-England champion in 2001 and he replied: “I blindly believed I was going to win. I just didn’t like losing, it didn’t matter who it was. It was personal for me on court”. These people are the path-clearers, the road-finders, the courage-givers, the confidence-restorers. This is also who Bindra is. Forget all those hideous clichés about do-it-for-India because the athlete can only think about himself. In the pressure of competition, it’s hard enough to pull your talent along, let alone carry nations. You don’t play with an anthem in your head but according to the sheet music that is your plan for the day. But when you win, for yourself, for your parents, for your coaches, for those who helped you, the medal becomes an inadvertent gift for your nation. Bindra doesn’t gaze at his 2008 Olympic gold medal and he’s not even quite sure where it is most of the time. But the medal is really for India to look at, a circular representation of the journey he’s lived and endured for years. A medallion of proof. An Indian can. Bindra is not a star because shooters never are. He is too quiet for celebrity, too serious to be glib. But he’s something more important: he’s an evangelist. Not for shooting but for suffering, not for gold medals but for holding a dream tightly in your fist and never letting go. He’s a reticent man with a great story who eventually learnt to stand at podiums and tell strangers incredibly honest stories about what he lacked. Bindra’s great gift is to de-mythologise success and to divest it of exaggeration. “Sometimes with a big achievement,” he said, “there can be an element of aura or excessive admiration that’s counter-productive. It lessens the deep desperation to win and the desire to get it for themselves. ” He wants to show it’s within reach, a real aspiration of imperfect people, not some empty, useless miracle.
When he first began speaking after Beijing 2008, called by schools, conclaves, colleges, corporations, he didn’t talk so much about his weaknesses for he was still a competitive athlete who needed to maintain a strong self-image of himself and was thus unable to entirely reveal himself. But then, as his career wound down, he started to peel himself away, strip off his skin and show people his full self. “I talked about my vulnerabilities. I talked about my insecurities. I talked about how I used to be a nervous wreck. I talked about how I was a perfectionist for whom nothing was ever enough. I was like anybody else and I just worked, worked, worked. I persevered. ” Even when he met athletes, he was like this because his vulnerabilities reassured them. Oh, wait, he’s just like us. “I tell them I am an average athlete who won because of bloody mindedness. If I can do it, there’s no reason why you can’t do it. ” And as athletes warmed to him, tied to him now by this umbilical cord of shared suffering, they opened up to him and exposed themselves and revealed their doubts and right there, in the rawness of their discussion, something was being built, something new, something honest, something lasting. Strange things happen to humans when one of their kind opens a door. It’s as if all the awe in a nation is let out. In 1998, the legendary South Korean golfer Se Ri Pak, whose father left her at a cemetery at night to learn to handle fear, won the first women’s golf Major by a South Korean.
Since then 13 different South Korean women have won 23 women’s Majors. Two decades earlier, that head-banded Viking with an aversion to razors at Wimbledon, named Bjorn Borg, brought Swedish impassivity to tennis. He won 11 Grand Slam titles from 1974-1981 and spawned myths (heart rate 35?), legends and a respectful brood of heirs named Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, Anders Järryd, Joakim Nyström and Henrik Sundström. “We saw the success he had,” said Wilander once, “and we decided to copy his style. ” No more needed saying. In India, roughly 200 shooters took part in the Nationals in the 1990s. Now there are 7000. Let us credit even a small percentage of that growth to Bindra. His influence is hard to measure but it speaks as quietly as he does. It does not reverberate across the Indian landscape like cricketing victory, but it seeps into shooting ranges and the subconscious as he changes Olympic tables, record books, belief, dreams. His very ordinariness from the outside — neat fellow with tucked-in shirt, of average height, wearing spectacles, with no evident muscle — is a gift and a human reassurance. No god could look like this. He is an introverted man who makes himself available, a hideously demanding competitor who is generous with his time, which is how path-breakers must be. Shooters interview him, visit him, ask him about finals, quiz him on desire, and he talks. A golfer wanted to know about the loneliness of travel and Bindra, who withstood defeated days in cold European hotels, a sporting desolation that eats at the spirit, spoke to him about enduring. He’s not a holder of secrets but an ambassador of possibility. In 2016, appointed as an Indian Olympic Association Goodwill Ambassador even as he competed, he wrote a letter to his tribe, wishing athletes, giving them his email address, opening himself up to any queries they might have. Sport is a deeply selfish activity as athletes clamber over each other, looking to training, diet, science, equipment to find that 1 per cent edge that separates them. And yet the best athletes, especially in nations with no sporting legacy and muscular history, offer their experience to those who follow them.
Athletes feed off each other and borrow confidence. When Bindra was younger, he applauded Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s shooting silver in the 2004 Athens Olympics, he drew belief from it but he wanted to surpass it. And that’s really the idea of a medal, to use it as a springboard to rise higher. It’s the spirit Bindra had, he sees, he wants. “There’s a kick being the first but I don’t want to be the only one,” he said. He doesn’t want to be equalled, he wants to be bettered. And so, one of his favourite stories centres around a shooting trial in 2013 when a 14-year-old came into the range wearing an attitude that yelled, ‘I don’t care who you are or what medal you won but I want to and I am going to beat you. ‘ A kid inspired by the Olympic medal but not showing it. A kid wanting to beat Bindra because he has that medal. A kid who knew that to beat Bindra he’d have to forget about the medal, leave awe in the car park and behave as if he had “I Can” tattooed in Gothic font on his forehead. When Bindra tells this story, he’s never offended by the kid, only delighted. This is his victory. This is his gift. Then again, on that day, Bindra won the trial. Beat the young contender. Told him and everyone else the same thing. Calm down, kid. I still can.
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