Abhinav Bindra, Olympic gold medallist & Member of IOC’s Athletes Commission, talks about battling depression post Olympics, believes that if communities take up sports, medals will follow, calls for better governance in day-to-day sports affairs, and says he was saddened by the allegations against Olympian Sushil Kumar. The session, conducted ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, was moderated by Assistant Editor Mihir Vasavda.
MIHIR VASAVDA: Why is it so important to have the Olympic Games in the middle of a pandemic?
The Olympics unite the world. The Olympics Village, for example, is perhaps going to be the most unique place on the planet soon. Athletes from 206 nations along with the Refugee Olympic Team will live together in unity, promoting friendship and respect while peacefully competing in an intense competition. The world needs to be reminded of this unity more than ever before… Sports has tremendous power, to challenge, to inspire, to change, to heal, to unite and to create magic. I believe these Olympic Games are extremely important given what the world has faced in the last year-and-a-half. I know that these games will be challenging, they will be very different from any Olympics ever, but I think there is immense resilience being shown on the part of everybody concerned.
MIHIR VASAVDA: Along with the challenges that you mentioned, will there also be a lot more uncertainty in terms of results and the performances?
The Games will most definitely be unique… There have to be certain sacrifices. Some athletes have missed out on qualification. We don’t know how the Games will actually transpire. I mean, if there are positive cases (of Covid-19), some athletes might actually land in Tokyo but not get to compete. One has to go in with a very open and flexible mind. Frankly, I don’t have the answers to every detail. Probably nobody does. Of course, a set of protocols have already been put in place… Will they be enough? We don’t know. Whether there will be adaptability and flexibility needed to continuously tweak them? Definitely yes.
NITIN SHARMA: Staying in bio-bubbles and competing under new circumstances will also be emotionally and mentally tough for the athletes…
Well, staying in the bio bubble is for a maximum of five days. The time spent in the Olympics Village is going to be far less than what normally is the case. When I competed at the Games, I would go there 10 days in advance, practice, get used to conditions, but they only have five days to get ready, and they have to leave 48 hours post their event. A lot of athletes have already been competing in these environments and have got accustomed to Covid-19 protocols. There have been more than 200 competitions held in these Covid times. None of them thankfully have ended up being a super spreader event. Of course, the rules will be even more stringent… I believe that the athlete population is perhaps the most resilient population and adapts quite quickly. Their playbook is in place… The athletes who are able to adapt and are more flexible will probably be the ones who will win.
SHAMIK CHAKRABARTY: How do you look at the additional restrictions that are in place for Indian athletes because of the new virus strain found in India?
They are pre-testing and there is a three-day quarantine, which I believe is not going to be a stringent quarantine. There is still work happening in order to ensure that the chances are as fair as they possibly could be to give athletes those additional couple of days of training. But apart from that, the rules remain same for everybody. The rules that we are hearing of may still be refined.
MIHIR VASAVDA: After Rio, you headed a panel of the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) to analyse the reasons for the poor performance of shooters in the Games. Where do we stand now?
…A lot of our young athletes are doing exceedingly well. Never before in our history, at least in my sport, we are going into the Games with so many of our athletes starting out as favourites. So on paper we have a great chance and we should come back with several gold medals. Whether that happens or not, we just have to wait and watch. That is the uniqueness of sport. It cannot be scripted; it can never be broken down into black and white. Athletes of today have so much more exposure, knowledge… I started out under a mango tree. Now a shooter can train in a world-class environment with better coaching and equipment… When an athlete arrives at the Olympics Village, there’s a sensory overload because there is so much happening. Your cognitive ability decreases… How the athletes adapt to these changes is going to be important and will determine how they perform on that particular day.
NITIN SHARMA: What is your message for young athletes competing for the first time?
…Don’t think too much about the past, definitely don’t think about the future, just stay in the present and do your best. If one thinks too much about winning medals, it takes away from the mental capacity of the human brain which needs to be a 100% to win an Olympic medal.
SHAHID JUDGE: Has enough been done to address post-Olympics depression?
I faced post-Olympics depression after my victory in Beijing, which was perhaps the most challenging moment in my sporting career. It was because of the void that was created with that achievement (the gold medal). I had spent 16 years of my life just for that one moment. I never thought of life after that. It took me a year to get over it. But there’s tremendous work that has happened on mental health… My work at the International Olympic Committee Athletes Commission (IOC AC), for example, has been directed particularly towards mental health. I am part of their working group on mental health… We started with a study on athletes’ mental health because there has been very little data available. It has brought together about 30 people from around the world — some of the best minds associated with mental health, right from professors of Harvard and Stanford to athletes… After the consensus study document was published, the working group was constituted and their work began with (finding ways) to destigmatise mental health issues… There is such a huge misconception that athletes are immune to any kind of mental health issues, because we are perceived as people who are mentally very strong. But perhaps this community has even more triggers than other people… There is a lot of continuous dealing with success, the continuous feeling of failure, the continuous travel, the lack of sleep, the impending end of career, injuries… All potential triggers to mental health issues. So we did a lot of work to destigmatise it, then the work started on creating a tool to assess the mental health of athletes. We created two tools. The first tool is a sports mental health assessment tool, which is to be used by a medical practitioner or mental health expert. Then we created a sports mental health recognition tool. It is for the larger sports ecosystem. The athlete’s family, friends can use it or the athlete can use it themselves. This is to identify and raise red flags. If a certain number of red flags are raised, then the athlete must get guidance…
We have to ensure that psychologically safe environments are created for the athletes. That’s where their entourage is responsible. So the IOC AC partnered with IOC’s Entourage Commission, and we started a lot of work and discussions on how best we could deal with it. We have come up with a certification and a diploma course which can be taken by the larger entourage. We have also released a mental health toolkit which is meant for organisations so that they can create psychologically safe environments for athletes to perform… My foundation in India has touched upon the issue of mental health with at least 2,000-3,000 athletes in the past six months. We have just finished a course for the mental health of coaches… I will give you a small example. A particular academy started to incorporate some of these mental health assessment tools for their athletes… Two of their athletes were found suicidal. It was unbelievable, but just because of this awareness drive we were able to help an athlete get back on track. So it is a big issue and requires effort from all stakeholders.
SRIRAM VEERA: You talked about the low you felt after the victory in Beijing. What exactly happened?
I have been quite vocal about it. Of course, I sought help. It was so important to know the fact that my parents and people around me loved me whether I had won or not… An interesting fact came up when I decided to go on a Vipassana meditation course for 10 days to try and find my new calling in life. At that point in time, I wanted to move away from sport, but I really had no clarity. I had to meditate for 10 hours a day in silence. For 10 continuous days, I did absolutely nothing but think back to my sport, my shooting performance. That was just a huge moment for me to understand that I still loved the process of my sport and that brought me back for more. That was the reason why I came back and attempted to compete. That is why I spent another decade or so in my sporting life.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Despite better coaches, equipment and infrastructure now, how do you explain India’s low medal haul at the Olympics?
I look at this a little bit differently. I really see the power of sports in what it can do with communities, what it can do to society as a whole. Yes, our elite athletes are as well supported as any athlete around the world. If you look at the amount of dollars spent on the elite athletes, at least in the time leading up to the Games in the last four or five years, it matches up. What we really need to do is make a more determined effort to capture the imagination of communities as a whole. We need to make more of our youth play sports to learn the values of friendship, respect, excellence… To learn how to lose, how to win. When we do that, I think winning medals at this elite level will slowly but surely become a by-product of this whole exercise… Suddenly you can’t say that your sports budget will match your defence budget. But you can certainly justify more money being spent on youth development. We have the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports which does a lot of work in sports… But perhaps they can do something to bring these two worlds together, and really do something for the youth.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Recently, we had athletes complain about training in the heat in Patiala. So while we may be spending crores on elite athletes, aren’t we also letting many of them down in their crunch time?
What you are alluding to is the governance of sport. There is an element of governance at the leadership level, but we also need more quality, more knowledge in the day-to-day functioning of a sport, and when that happens, these little things that you are talking about will start getting better. For example, the Shooting Federation recognised the second wave early on and sent the shooting team to Croatia to train in good conditions… So the day-to-day functioning has to be a well-oiled machine. It is the culmination of little things which differentiates an athlete winning a gold medal or an athlete finishing tenth..
TUSHAR BHADURI: It has been 13 years since you won the Olympic gold medal. How do you look back on it?
In sports, yesterday never counts. I don’t look back at my own sports career in terms of the few medals which hang on the wall. I look back at my sports career in terms of the relationships I built with my mum, with my dad… I went to Germany as a 12-year-old boy and lived in a sports hostel with my mum, and the bond that I was able to build with her remains so special. Sport enabled the relationships that I built with my coaches, some whom I love, some whom I continue to hate but still get along with. The relationships that I built with my competitors are also special relationships. It is the type of person that I became in the process of winning that gold medal that continues to live with me forever. I may have looked at that piece of metal (gold medal) maybe two times after I won it. I have carried the achievement quite lightly.
DEVENDRA PANDEY: What was your reaction to allegations against Olympic-medallist Sushil Kumar?
I was saddened. The little time that I had with him, I found him to be a very humble individual. I don’t really know what transpired. But it’s very sad for Indian sports.
SRIRAM VEERA: Can you talk about the shooting process. Athletes have spoken about shooting between heartbeats…
At an Olympics final, your heart will beat at 180 beats per minute. That’s what my heartbeat was when I competed at the Olympics final; I was dead. I was in fear, my heart was about to burst. There, you have to find the creativity and the courage to pull that trigger. My trigger only weighed 25 grams but the courage required to pull those 25 grams… it’s scary. I have never felt as alive as I did at the three Olympic finals. So whether I was able to find precision in the moment between my heartbeats, I don’t know. But it requires creativity to find the perfect in the imperfect because that is what an Olympics final is, you have to try and be perfect on an imperfect day… I did try to elevate my heartbeat before through simulations though. I drank five shots of espresso five minutes before training. At times, I remained awake the whole night so that I could prepare for the sleepless night before an Olympic competition… But if you say that I found the mental capacity to shoot between heartbeats at the finals, it sounds cool, but it didn’t happen.
SHIVANI NAIK: In the past 13 years, what are some of the things that have given you a similar high as winning the medal in Beijing?
I don’t compare my active life as an athlete to my future or present. Perhaps nothing will match up to that excitement, but I’m not even trying to compare. I’m very happy just to look at the day-to-day. I challenge myself to be a better version of myself in my current occupation. I have started to acknowledge the little victories in life.
NIHAL KOSHIE: The IOC has said that Rule 50 will be in place in the Games. So athletes won’t be allowed to protest on the field, on podiums, and during ceremonies. They can express themselves in press briefs, on social media and in mixed zones. What is your opinion on it?
The IOC has mentioned that we are continuously looking for more areas where athletes can express whatever they want to, even in Tokyo…My personal opinion is that the field of play when competition starts and the ceremonies should be sacrosanct. Why are we all athletes going there? We are going there to be remembered for our exploits on the field of play. We do not suddenly want the Olympic Games to become an arena of protest because it is also hard to determine which is a good protest and which is a bad protest. You have different nations taking part, what if an athlete has been forced to protest? Maybe he or she is under political pressure to protest. How does one protect athletes in that respect? For example, if an athlete wins the gold medal, and the silver medal winner protests at the victory ceremony… The entire focus will be shifted to that and will not be on the actual champion of the day… The Olympic Games are only for two weeks, but the IOC is creating a platform where athletes can perhaps have that expression and can protest throughout the year…
NIHAL KOSHIE: So will those platforms be available for the Tokyo Games?
That could possibly happen.
NIHAL KOSHIE: Finding bidders for the Games is becoming a challenge. The European Championships were hosted by over 10 countries. Is that the possible way forward for the Olympics too?
I think one is already seeing many changes in the whole Olympics world. The urbanisation of the Olympic Games is happening to a great degree. If you carefully study the Youth Olympic Games, for example, they have really become an incubator for the actual Summer Games. A lot of sports with a youthful, urban appeal are coming into the fold. Breakdancing, for example, is part of the Paris programme (in 2024) now. Sport climbing is already part of the Tokyo Games. You have 3×3 basketball coming into the fold. The beauty of these urban sports is that the cost of infrastructure is very low. Participation in these sports is huge. So slowly but surely urban sports will gain more importance… Of course, the Olympic Games are a lot about tradition. But even the traditional sports will have to evolve and adapt to changing circumstances. The Olympic Agenda 2020+5 addresses these issues — how infrastructure costs have to come down, how sustainability of the Games has to be ensured. Sustainability is going to be the key for every sport to continue to survive in the next 20-30 years or over the next few decades.
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: But isn’t the addition of new sports and phasing out of old ones very market driven? Isn’t there a need for more balance there?
The Olympic Games is just one event, but all sports has to find ways to sustain itself outside of this one event… The responsibility of all (sports) organisations is to go and actively find their fans, which I don’t think they have done so well. And when that happens, suddenly, these sports become more commercially interesting and they find sustainability themselves. Then they are also not just dependent on the money that they receive through Olympic revenues. … Sustainability is going to be important because nothing will last forever just on charity. You talked about market forces driving some sports into the Olympic movement… We might see cricket in the Olympics a few years down the line…
SANDEEP DWIVEDI: But that’s the question, should cricket really be in the Olympics? Will they take it seriously?
Agenda 2020+5 brings out the fact that the Olympics must attract the best athletes. If you want an entry into the Games, you have to attract your best lot. Work is being done to ensure that . But you make a fair point, if the best doesn’t come to Olympics, then (the sport) doesn’t deserve to be there.