Abhi-nerve cures a nation's yellow fever

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By MADHUMITA GANGULY in Beijing
  • Published 11.08.08
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Beijing, Aug. 11: As Abhinav Bindra, 25, fixed his gaze on the final target this overcast morning, the hopes of a medal-starved nation seemed compressed into one single moment.

Seconds later, a country that is the world’s largest consumer of gold jewellery was wearing as its proudest ornament a small disc plated with 6gm of the metal. But the young man’s gaze did not change.

The globe’s second-most populous nation had won its first-ever individual Olympic gold; its youth a new icon; Olympic sports, perhaps, a new future among a billion people; and India, as mom Babli Bindra proudly said in Chandigarh, its “most eligible bachelor”.

But here was the new champion: composed, unflappable, unaffected by something most would die for.

A picture of concentration before the final shot, all that he allowed himself on learning he had won the 10m air rifle was an ever-so-tiny pump of the fist and the hint of a smile. Then he walked off for a change of clothes.

Perhaps it would take time to sink in? Abhinav was back again, looking fresher in white Bermudas and the Indian jacket. On the podium, a whiff of a smile again as he bent down for the medal and flowers. Then he was back to his stoic self, lost in introspection almost, as the Tricolour went up and the national anthem was played.

“This was the thrill of my life,” the golden boy told reporters, looking not in the least enthused by the excitement around him as the handful of Indian supporters danced in glee.

“Can’t really describe how I felt at that particular moment,” he rectified himself, adding that he hoped this would change the face of Olympic sports in the country.

Team-mate and Athens silver medallist Rajyavardhan Rathore almost winked as he said: “We call him the guy who is constantly comatose.”

How does Abhinav react to that? “He doesn’t; he’s comatose, you see,” Rathore’s grin became broader.

Later in the evening, having had enough time to mull over the significance of his feat, Abhinav faced the media at the Olympic Village. Surely there’d be a little more emotion this time! Tough luck.

Abhinav began by expressing gratitude for the support from his parents — “this medal is for them”— and hoped his countrymen and their government would now show a little more belief in athletes, a little more patience when they were down, instead of an eagerness to hustle them into oblivion.

He should know, having been laid low by spinal injury that prevented him from even lifting a rifle soon after his world championships gold at Zagreb in 2006.

He had arrived in Beijing for his third Olympics ranked world number 17. Early on, more fancied team-mates Anjali Bhagwat, Manavjit Singh Sandhu and Mansher Singh fell by the wayside.

Abhinav entered the final in fourth place and then raised his game. His first shot of 10.7 moved him to third spot and by the time he was preparing to shoot his fourth, he had risen to second place. A 10.6 on the seventh gave him the lead.

As the final went down to the wire, his last was a near-perfect 10.8 for an overall score of 700.5 (596+104.5).

In Athens, Abhinav had bettered that but finished seventh. “Shooting is 99 per cent luck and one per cent training,” he shrugged.

So, into that one per cent, he had crammed in seven hours of shooting practice and two hours’ stretching and jogging in the lead-up to today’s contest.

Back home, people poured onto the streets in several cities, hugging and congratulating strangers. To a whole country tonight, Abhinav’s gold would shine brighter than the 14,000 tonnes of necklaces, rings and bracelets in its safes and vaults.

“Abhinav, will you marry me? My parents will have to buy that much less GOLD now,” a message posted by “Kaveri” read on the Reuters website, the news agency reported.

“Yes, I have already started the search (for a bride),” the star’s mother said. “Now I have lots of work ahead as he is the country’s most eligible bachelor.”

“So what next, Abhinav? Eye on London 2012?” a reporter in Beijing asked.

“Oh, give me a break,” the champion said. “Let 2008 get over first.”