Abhinav Bindra has a unique first to his credit—the 2008 Olympic shooting champion is India’s first individual Olympic gold medallist. But that’s not all. His association with the Olympic movement goes way beyond his sport and his medal. Bindra is an appointed member of the Athletes Commission of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), has been an advocate of mental health for athletes, and through his foundation, the Abhinav Bindra Foundation, is the IOC’s first partner in India to launch the Olympic Values Education Programme (OVEP) that fosters the movement at the grassroots level. In an episode of Sports UnLtd, Bindra dives deep into the Olympics ecosystem and his thoughts on whether India should host the 2036 Games. Edited excerpts:
Q. The 141st session of the IOC recently concluded in Mumbai. What is the significance of India hosting an IOC session?
India has always been a market that the IOC has been wanting to engage with for a long time. We’ve had our challenges along the way. But this session coming to India was an extremely important step forward in trying to re-energise the Olympic movement in India. And, hopefully, it is the start to a much deeper engagement with the world's largest and youngest population. It is in the interest of India to engage with the IOC and the Olympic movement in a deeper way. The Olympic movement has a lot to offer to our young people, not just in creating a healthier society, but also inspiring our youth through the Olympic values. It is also in the IOC’s interest to engage with India. Of course, it is an important market—as I just said, it is the world’s largest and youngest population. And I do hope that this IOC session has a legacy attached to it and that, in the years to come, we can see a much more concerted effort by all stakeholders to bring the movement alive.
Q. We had Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the opening ceremony of the IOC session where he made official India’s intention to bid for the Olympics in 2036. You had mentioned a few years ago that India should not host the Olympics till it has a realistic chance of winning 40 gold medals. Is that a statement you still stand by?
While perceptions of mine have also changed in many ways, I think India is a very young country and the Olympic movement has a lot to offer to our young people. I still am of the opinion that we should continue to make sure that investment into our athletes, into the grassroots development of sport continue to happen, and our performance at the Olympics gives justice to the large country that we are. We won seven medals at the Games in Tokyo, we’ve had a fantastic Asian Games, and it will be interesting to see what we can muster at Paris. And I’m quite hopeful that we will continue to better our performances. But I think it is also important that the focus should not just be on hosting, but equally, on improvement of our performances.
I do believe that the next decade or so will be a decade of sport for this country. Sport will continue to be on the rise, there will be more investment going into sport. A greater number of sports is being followed, more young people are participating in sport. So, for sure, the development of sport in the next decade or so will be incredible in this country. There’s no denying the fact that India will host the Olympic Games. The only question is when.
Q. In 2008, you were the first individual Olympic gold medallist from India. And it seems that a switch has been flicked since. We’ve had 17 Olympic medallists before you, three in 2008, the year that you won, and 15 in the next 13 years. What are some of the factors that have brought about this change?
Indian sport is definitely on the rise, and I think the number of medals we win should not be the only barometer judging our success. What we really need to see is the development of talent, the depth of talent that exists across the board and how improvements are being made at different levels. And that certainly is happening. Of course, nothing succeeds like success. And all these athletes who won have become role models and they inspired the next generation of athletes.
But what we’re also seeing is sport being given priority at the institutional level, with the government investing much more at different levels, not just at the elite level. Our elite athletes are very well taken care of, and the amount of money being spent at that level is probably the highest that exists anywhere in the world. But we are also seeing investment filtering down slowly to the grassroots level. And that should be a continuous focus area. The Khelo India Games give a good platform to young athletes. But we need to continuously work harder in that area to nurture and mentor them, giving them access to not just infrastructure, but the best knowledge that helps them build strong foundations. Science and technology need to be incorporated at a much higher degree right at the grassroots level. And all that is slowly starting to happen.
Sport is also being accorded a priority at the state level. You see states like Madhya Pradesh setting up great academies. You have states like Odisha that become the beacon of using the power of sport to shape and drive their society. There are many more state governments which are now more proactive, and that needs to continue to be taken to the next level. All these factors have taken us to where we are today and hopefully going forward this rise will continue.
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Q. Of late, we also see the corporate sector coming forward to invest in Olympic sports.
There are two aspects to it. One, the business side of sport and the other the actual sport development side and the role of corporates through CSR. On the business side of sport, of course, money is being put into different sports and leagues and marketing campaigns. And that comes from marketing budgets. So wherever the corporates see value in different sports, they’re opening their arms and their purses. And there the onus really lies at the governance of our different sports, the different sports federations, our National Olympic Committee. They have to work hard to continuously create value propositions where corporates would be interested to participate in. We are slowly starting to see some good examples, like kabaddi has a successful league. Also support to individual athletes—brand ambassador roles are now not just limited to cricketers, many other athletes are being looked at that same level.
The second aspect of the role of corporates into development of sport is through CSR. And that is where the real development lies because that is where money needs to go into long-term development, into areas which will not give you instant gratification, but which will require years of persistence to get results. There, we are slowly starting to see things happen, but it is still slow. I think it’s just 1 percent of overall CSR spend of our entire country that goes towards sport. I am cognisant of the fact that there are other pressing issues that require investment of a higher degree of priority, like health care, education etc, but I can only encourage corporates to look at sport from a more holistic prism and not just limit the role of sport to our athletes bringing medals at the Olympic Games. That will be just the 1 percent of athletes.
One really needs to look at sport and how it is going to shape our society. So if there are corporates who are supporting health, for example, as part of CSR, sport has a very meaningful role to play in making our young society healthier. The values of sport in itself are a wonderful education in itself, the character development that happens through sport is unlike any other. Sport contributes a great degree towards education and youth development, so look at sport from a larger perspective. If you look at the greatest economies of the world, the economic superpowers also happen to be sporting superpowers. And I believe that they’ve become economic superpowers because sport has had a very meaningful role to play in shaping society, creating values of honesty, of integrity, of creating that work ethic that is required to succeed.
Q. Last year, the Abhinav Bindra Foundation partnered with the IOC to launch the Olympic Values Education Programme (OVEP) in public schools in Odisha. Can you give us a snapshot of what OVEP is?
I’ll give you my own example. I spent 22 years in sport and I look back at sport very differently. I don’t look back at the few medals that I won, which hang on a wall, but I look at sport, at the relationships I was able to build and how it shaped me. Sport taught me a thing or two about winning, but sport taught me how to lose, it taught me a lot about honesty, integrity. Sport taught me about respect, about learning to respect rules, about learning to respect competitors, and it also taught me how to respect my own self. Sport taught me about dealing with conflict, both internal and external. Sport has really shaped who I am.
And this is exactly what OVEP tries to achieve. It is an experiential learning programme being run in government schools in Odisha as well as Assam now through our foundation. It, of course, makes young people play from which they derive health benefits, but also the mental health benefits of just having the joy of playing. In a very short period of time, it is also getting more young girls to play sport. For example, when we started out, we realised that most of the girls were too shy to come out for PE classes and now all our activities are mixed gender in nature, which forced young girls to play with the boys.
Of course the boys were a little grumpy starting off, now they have to play with the girls, but after a week or two they realised the girls are actually very good at what they do and they started to enjoy that process. One of the best stories I have from the programme is we conducted an inter-school tournament in Odisha of all these OVEP schools, and you’d be surprised to know that 60-odd percent of the captains of these mixed-gendered football team events were actually girls. And most of them were nominated by the boys. There have been many more behavioural changes too that have been seen. Attendance in classes has gone up, and we have that data to showcase that.
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Q. In the early days, was it difficult to convince families and schools to let the girls play outdoor, contact sports?
Actually, to the contrary. It was an enthusiastic audience just waiting to be empowered. I'll answer this a little differently on how this programme has empowered PE teachers, because they, too, have a massive role to play. You know that, in the hierarchy of our school systems, PE teachers are never really front of the queue. When OVEP started off in these schools, PE teachers suddenly found a new gear as there was prestige attached to the programme. It’s an Olympic programme coming to government schools, so it is a big deal for the entire system. What was so interesting to see was how the PE teachers’ community has developed in Odisha. Whenever an official from the education department was visiting these schools, the first person they asked for was the PE teacher. And that really has had a significant impact on that community.
Q. Given your stature and your experience with the Indian sports ecosystem, have you ever considered getting into sports administration, especially at a time when a number of Indian sports associations are mired in controversies?
I will not lie to you, I have considered it, but just I don’t think I’ve had the right opportunity or the thick skin that is required to be in an environment such as that. If I have to get into a position, I have to win an election and I have to have that mindset change required to get into sports politics, which is also politics. Frankly, I have not yet put in enough energy into it. I’m too busy at the moment focussed on my work, my businesses, but also 50 percent of my time and energy is dedicated to my foundation and to the various initiatives that I’ve started. And that is my way currently of giving back to sport in this country.
Q. The Paris Games is just about nine months away. What are your expectations from the Indian contingent?
Before I come to the Indian contingent, I think the Paris Games will be a spectacle like no other. It is the first time that the Games are going to be held under the full reform process that the Olympics has undertaken under Agenda 2020+5. It will really set the tone for future Olympic Games. You have an opening ceremony, which is, for the first time in Olympic history, not being done in an Olympic Stadium, but on river Seine. It promises to be an incredible spectacle. Of course, the Games will have the best athletes from across the world, and I’m really looking forward to it. The real uniqueness of the Olympic Games is that you wake up and can go and watch shooting; by the afternoon, you can go watch rowing, and in the evening you can go watch football. And it just tells you how diverse we are as human beings.
From an India perspective. I’m also looking forward to good performances from our athletes. I’m confident that we will continue to better our medal haul—I’m hopeful we’ll move to double digits. Shooting, where I come from, hasn’t unfortunately delivered in the last couple of editions, but I’m confident and hopeful that it’s going to change.