Sunday, August 24, 2008

Abhinav Bindra: India's Goldfinger

BEIJING: The final shot from Abhinav Bindra's rifle may not have been heard outside the packed hall in the Beijing Shooting Range Complex on Monday morning. But its bang was loud enough to lift the spirit of a billion-plus Indians back home. No individual gold has mattered so much to so many people in the history of Olympics. It was a medal for Abhinav; it was redemption for India. Never again will anyone be able to point a smug, sardonic finger and say: "No Indian is good enough to win an individual Olympic gold."

Hockey's eight gold medals notwithstanding, the last coming 28 years ago, this is the first time that an Indian has won an individual gold since modern Olympics started in 1896. There is no greater joy than listening to the sound of the national anthem on the world's biggest stage.

The global media looked bemused as grown-up Indians danced like little children, shedding tears of joy. How can they understand?

The joy was also spurred by the improbable nature of the triumph. The script of the men's 10m air rifle final might have been penned by Alfred Hitchcock himself. Bindra, who qualified for the final in the morning with the fourth-best score of 596, looked calm and assured when the call for the first shot came.

The first shot - 10.7. He started with a bang and that set the tone for the 10-shot final. He followed it up with a 10.3. After the third shot, a 10.4, he had moved from No. 3 to No. 2. Then, Bindra slowly ate into the lead of Finland's Henri Hakkinen and went ahead after the seventh shot with 10.6.

Hakkinen caught up with him after the ninth shot, and with one shot to go, the Indian and the Finn were tied at 689.7 points.

There was a hushed silence inside the hall. The suspense was unbearable. It's in such situations that champions show their mettle. And Bindra showed nerves of steel. He fired first, an amazing 10.8 for a total of 700.5. Home favourite and defending champion Zhu Qinan shot a 10.5 and Hakkinen simply withered under pressure, managing only 9.7. Bindra finally smiled, but barely.

He turned back and went up to hug his Swiss coach Gaby Buehlmann, with whom he trained for months in Germany, away from the intrusive home media. After the medals' ceremony, Bindra was mobbed by journalists, several of them from Finland and China.

"How does it feel Mr Bindra?" "Hard to describe it... it's the thrill of my life," he said, still looking calm as a monk. "The final shot was perfect. I just went for it. I was aggressive. It went my way. I'm lucky," he added in a matter-of-fact tone.

Will this not change his life? "My life will go on. I hope it changes the face of Olympic sports in the country," he said.

This is the fifth individual Olympic medal for India. Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav won the first, a bronze in wrestling at the Helsinki Games in 1952. After a long gap, Leander Paes won the tennis bronze in Atlanta Games in 1996. Then, Karnam Malleswari won a weightlifting bronze in 2000 in Sydney and Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore raised the bar, winning a silver in Athens in 2004.

Rathore, who was practising for his event that is scheduled for Tuesday, watched it on TV in the players' lounge in the trap section. "My congratulations to Abhinav. He has raised the bar further. I always maintained that this is a world-class shooting team. There will be some hits and some misses."