May 21, 2001

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A shot in the dark

Rohit Brijnath

Before anything. Before you understand why he must stand as still as a hanging painting, before you smell the cordite of his burning frustration, before you taste the sweetness of his ambition...understand this.

Understand the nature of his gift, understand the calibration of his growing genius.

Understand how good he is, and must be.

To do that you must shave your head. And steal a pea from your refrigerator. And walk 33 feet, and put that pea on your shaved head, and don't shake for he will not, and say to him, this boy with a gun......say to him, shoot.

Most times, he won't miss.

He is Abhinav Bindra, his art is rifle shooting, and when he walks in the door William Tell leaves town. He's Billy the Kid with a banker's manners.

Since the Sydney Olympics, he's won 12 medals in 21 competitions (and fine, none of them was a world championship or a world cup). He's notched up a world record score, beaten the 1991 and 1993 World Shooter of the Year, Rajmond Debevec, and rolled past Lief Steinar Rolland, arguably the best air rifle proponent in the world.

Oh, and one more thing. In a sport where experience arrives with age, he's, well, an embarrassing 18.

If all goes well, and God lends a steadying hand, who knows, perhaps, maybe, one day down the line the kid could come home with an Olympic medal.

There's only one problem: all's not going well.

It's not that the kid doesn't know his art. Ask him about shooting, and he'll give you a lecture about muscle tension, breathing control and trigger pressure that sounds like one of those algebra lessons in school you never understood.

It's not that the kid's a dreamer. When I ask what he dreams of, he shrugs it off like a silly question. "An athlete's dream is not enough to win. It's a like a project, an well-orchestrated plan".

It's not that the kid's lazy. He says to me, he trains six hours a day, then physical training, then mental training, six days a week. And then adds: "I'm generally off on the 7th day but sometimes I just can't resist some training".

It's just that the kid ( and his team, he emphasises) doesn't have a coach.

And needs to ask Dad to pay for most of his expenses. And has to travel everywhere alone, doing his own ticketing, and hotel bookings, and practise times, while remaining concentrated enough to shoot, and confronting four blank silent walls after bad days, and only the reflection in the mirror to push him on, and for God sakes he's only 18.

He's reaching for the stars but he's doing it blind. He's holding his wonderful gifts in his hands and wondering can someone tell me what to with this. He's a would-be champion whose epitaph might remain just that.

Talent without a coach is an inadequate formula, an unfinished equation; think of Ali without Angelo Dundee, Sampras with the late Tim Gullikson, Man U without Sir Alex.

To understand what a coach means to Abhinav Bindra is to first journey through his sport.

Shooting has a limited aesthetic, it does not move the heart but stirs the brain.

Its virtues are many, merely that they are not obvious.

If tennis players are a study in motion, Bindra must court stillness; if soccer players are all heaving lungs he must have the measured breath of a comatose patient; if the cricketer is possessed with a devilish wrist, he must own a falcon's eye; if the basketball player is driven by loud, surging passions, he must remain as calmly inscrutable as a meditative monk.

Bindra's gun weighs 5.5kg, the sort of dumbbell you heft every morning, and he must hold it as steady as a surgeon's hand. He must empty his brain of every distraction (Christ, this is an Olympics, don't fail boy), not let his muscles turn too rigid nor fall too loose, be conscious of his light trigger pressure, fire, and then maintain his muscle tension through the follow through, because the slightest twitch, the mere flutter of a butterfly's wings and a medal will turn to dust.

The bullseye remember, 10 metres away, is 0.5mm. (See, I wasn't kidding about that pea.) Shooters fire 60 shots in search of the perfect score of 600. He's got to 598 once.

Will this kid ever win an Olympic medal? Nobody knows. But he deserves his chance. And he deserves a coach. He deserves a well-thought plan to propel him to glory just a fingertip away.

Listen to him: "You cannot dream without doing anything without a coach. What would our cricket team be without a coach, I was not born with all this expert knowledge. I need to be taught, you need to plan things to peak at the right time. I am not sure if my planning is correct it's just a gamble".

The team's Hungarian coach Laszlo Szucsak, it is said, has gone to coach Japan because India couldn't afford to pay him US$500 or whatever more a month. But they can spend Rs 50 crore on hospitality for foreign athletes at the Afro-Asian Games!!!!

There are grown men in suits in the Indian Olympic Association who should sit down, shut up and listen to this 18 year old kid whose voice never gets above a whisper but his maturity is powerful: "In sport you can't guarantee anything but you only have a chance when you have done something with a sense of purpose and thought".

Does India have a plan for it shooters, for him? As he asks rhetorically, "What has been planned for shooters to win at Athens 2004? Nobody seems to be interested or hungry. There is no project Athens".

Still, he shoots, 6 hours a day, 6 days a week, and then on the 7th day too. And this is why. "There are things that frustrate, but somehow that gives me all the more reason to work hard".

People may have given up on the kid, but he's not giving up on himself. Coach be damned, he says, "I have my own project Athens".

He's praying it works. Let's get down on our knees too and help.

Rohit Brijnath

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