The Olympics come around once every four years. Theoretically. During a pandemic, the wait could be five years, and when there is war, well, it could be twelve, or may just have to be skipped. And at the end of those four, five or even twelve years, it all comes down to that hour, that fraction of a minute, or the split second that it takes a propelled bullet to find its 0.5mm-wide mark, at least ten metres away.
Every minute of every Olympian’s life is spent preparing to peak at that exact moment when the opportunity presents itself. And if you do all that perfectly on a perfect day, and your forty-nine other near-perfect opponents don’t, then you win a gold medal. It is that difficult.
Until 2008 in Beijing, India, a country of a billion people, had not won a single gold medal in an individual Olympic event. Then Abhinav Bindra came along. Rohit Brijnath, who co-wrote Bindra’s autobiography A Shot at History, in the book’s preface writes about the time he spent with the shooter:
“I was taken aback by how far he will go to get better, this extremity not merely of pain but of perseverance that he was willing to travel to. Small things. The meticulous way he examines his pellets, the dissatisfaction even with a perfect score, the altering of the soles of his shoes by 1 millimeter, the willingness to try commando training. Anything, everything, that could help him win.”
There is a good reason for this approach. As Bindra explains: “William Tell with his crossbow had to hit the apple, I have to hit the seed inside the core of that apple. All the time, every shot, that’s my job.” He then goes on to explain exactly why the Olympics is so important to him and to every other athlete in the world who aspires to immortality in their sport:
“The pressure of the Olympics is that right then, at that precise two-hour period every four years, I have to be perfect. Or just more perfect than everyone else in the world. This is what the Olympics’ appeal is, for it is the ultimate proof of readiness. There is no higher achievement in my sport, no finer examination of sporting worth, no more excruciating confirmation of skill produced under the suffocation of tension.”
Abhinav Bindra’s road to Beijing had been a long one. At Athens, four years before, the glitter of the disc had seduced, only to deceive. Bindra was third in qualifying, a medal in his sights. Then he was seventh out of eight shooters in the final, dealing with shattered dreams.
Bindra had felt then that in terms of process, he had done everything right. But balancing sound logic and bitter disappointment is a difficult thing. At the age of 20, coming out of the Olympic shooting range, he had contemplated retirement.
Saurabh Chowdhary and Manu Bhaker, India’s talented 19-year old shooters at Tokyo went through the very same experience. They came in with the weight of expectations and a string of tournament victories behind them, followed the process, and yet melted from the heat of the Olympic altar. A deep dive, once they are back home, into what Bindra did in the four years after his own Waterloo at Athens, that turned shattered dreams into a golden disc, might well be worth their while. It could even change the story their own biographers will someday write.
Between 2004 and 2008, Bindra chased perfection. He tried everything to get that half percent improvement that would give him a 600/600 at the Olympic finals. He broke every part of his process into tiny parts and looked at how to make those parts more efficient. He even had laser surgery done to remove his love handles because he felt the love handle had a trampoline effect when his left elbow rested on his left hip. He lost his love handles but it didn’t give him a 600 every time he picked up a rifle. But he did do a few things that made the difference.
Bindra always used a German rifle, made by the Walther company (the fact that they also famously supplied Ian Fleming’s James Bond always appealed to the young marksman’s dry sense of humour). The German gun used German bullets. To his surprise, Bindra found that a particular brand of Chinese bullets were even more accurate when used in the same gun. Unsurprisingly, they happened to be the bullets the world beating Chinese shooters were using. Bindra had to have them.
There was, however, a problem with acquiring the bullets. The Chinese government wouldn’t allow the manufacturer to sell the bullets to foreigners before the Beijing Olympics were over. So Bindra had a friend in Hong Kong order 10,000 rounds for him. Those were the bullets that he brought with him to the shooting range at Beijing.
Television viewers at the recent Tokyo games would have noticed the heart rates of shooters being displayed on their screens, as they took their shots at the target. The Indian marksman had realised this even as he had first prepared for the biggest stage at Athens. But he had not internalised it until his post-Athens analysis of what he could do better.
Perfection in shooting, Bindra now knew, would come from controlling his heart rate through breathing. If he could do this, he would shoot 10’s not 9’s. So, he practised this. Day after day, month after month, he strove to bring himself to what he describes as “a more parasympathetic state, a more placid frame of mind”.
His respiratory rate prior to the Olympics was 14 to 15 cycles per minute, but by the time he got to Beijing it was down to four-five. It made him stable, allowed him to hold his breath, stay calm, and depress the trigger. He won. It has also been India’s only individual gold to date.
There wasn’t one single isolated element that Bindra did better. It was a sum total of little things that added up to be bigger than the parts. He had followed Kaizen, the Japanese method of continuous improvement. Zen philosophy doesn’t believe in perfectness. It does believe however in striving for it as the only way to be better. Abhinav Bindra is living proof of the fact that it works.
Also read: Tokyo Olympics was more pressure than Rio, but coach helped me take it ‘aaraam se’, Sindhu says
Will it make the boat go faster?
In 2018, Sir Steve Redgrave, winner of five gold medals across five Olympics, was approached by both the British and Chinese rowing authorities to work as high performance director with their respective teams. Their offer was understandable, given Redgrave’s preeminence and respect in the sport. His acceptance of the Chinese one was perhaps less obvious.
Redgrave’s remark a year later — “The Olympic Games in Tokyo are, of course, an important step in our strategy and China wants to win a gold Olympic medal there,” —was treated by the British establishment as wishful thinking. When China struck Gold at the Women’s Quadruple Sculls event in Tokyo last week, and Great Britain failed to get on the podium, the world sat up and took notice.
China didn’t just win, but the team of Chen Yunxia, Zhang Ling, Lyu Yang and Cui Xiaotong made a world record time of 6:05.13 at the Sea Forest Waterway, more than five seconds ahead of France in second position. It is not unusual that when rowing teams win gold at an Olympic event, their time would be about 10 per cent faster than the previous winners four years before. It is simply stunning to have this margin between the gold and silver medalists in the same race.
A pleased Redgrave had his trademark smile on as he told the press: “[This is] just a stepping stone to Paris.” With those words, the world had just been put on notice that he and the Chinese team are just setting out on their journey to greatness.
Before we look at what the Chinese Quadruple Sculls team did differently, we need to go back a number of years to when British rowing did something unusual in the early 1990’s. They recruited Jürgen Gröbler, a man who had moved from the former East Germany. Behind the Iron Curtain through the 1970s and 80s, Gröbler had trained some of the most successful rowers in the world and created winning teams.
Redgrave’s winning time in the coxed four in 1984 wouldn’t have qualified him for the final of the coxed fours in Seoul in 1988, Gröbler told the British. “His gold-medal winning time in Seoul in the coxless pair wouldn’t have even won him a medal in Barcelona in 1992, and so on and on.” At every four-year turn of the Olympic wheel, the bar was set higher. “You have to find more every time,” Gröbler said. He insisted that in order to win Olympic gold, every crew must increase the intensity of their training by 10 per cent compared to the previous Olympics.
Gröbler first brought in the concept of using data to improve the ‘measurables’. He insisted that it was now possible to summarise your every move against the question: ‘Will it make the boat go faster?’ Once you were convinced it would, those are the changes that rowers needed to make.
Gröbler worked with a whole host of successful British rowers in his time, but perhaps the most famous were the coxless four that won the gold medal at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Steve Redgrave was a part of that team. When Gröbler asked him to do weight training, Redgrave baulked: “If I wanted to lift weights, I would have chosen to be a weightlifter.”
Slowly, Gröbler convinced him with evidence that Redgrave’s increased power from lifting weights would help make the boat go faster. Eventually, the British legend accepted the argument, and it propelled Redgrave to his fifth gold medal, sporting immortality and a knighthood.
Redgrave may not have had the benefit of Gröbler’s insights when he raced in the first part of his Olympics career, but he did not get his previous four gold medals without developing constantly evolving strategies over the years that had made the boat go faster.
At Tokyo, the sum total of that experience evolved into a strategy for his Chinese wards that was simple in conception, stunning in execution: “When they came together four months ago, they always showed good pace and good middle pace. What they were lacking was to change the pace in the closing stages, and that’s what we’ve been working on for the last two months after the qualifying event,” Redgrave said after the race.
Sure enough, it made the boat go faster.
Also read: Indian hockey teams’ Olympic wins are a sign that a deeper, positive nationalism exists
The one percent formula
Until 2002, British cycling had won one Olympic gold medal in 76-years. In 2008, they won 7 of the 10 golds up for grabs in track cycling and repeated the feat four years later in London. Sir David Brailsford, who took over in 2002 and is largely credited with this turnaround, became head of Britain’s first professional cycling team. His boys won the next three of the four Tour de France races that they entered.
So how did the bike go faster?
The approach, it turned out, wasn’t so different from the ‘marginal gains’ Gröbler had adopted for the rowing team more than a decade before. Brailsford decided that everything a cyclist did during the race could be broken down into little parts, and a cyclist needed to do every little part 1 per cent quicker. The sum total of these little efforts would make the bike go fast enough to climb the podium. In essence, like Abhinav Bindra, he was following Kaizen, or continuous improvement.
But this was only one of the three pillars in Brailsford’s quest for a podium finish.
The second was human performance. It was not about cycling but what went before the cyclist got on the bike — the diet, the method of training, the mental conditioning.
And finally, there were the strategies that drove the faster bike and more efficient human to ultimate victory.
An example was cyclists asking themselves what was the power needed off the line to get the start required to achieve a winning time? Once this was answered, they looked at how capable the best cyclists on the team were at generating that power. They identified the gaps between where they were and where they needed to be. If it was a bridgeable gap, they put a plan in place, and if it wasn’t, they replaced the cyclist with one who had the ability to get that start.
The British bikes went faster than that of any other nation— a total of 20 times over the next three Olympics.
Also read: Former Sikkim boxer, who fought paralysis, behind Lovlina Borgohain’s Olympics journey
Go so fast that your opponents forget you exist
If the Chinese rowers made headlines with their win at Tokyo last week, it was nothing compared to the worldwide sensation that a Ph.D. in Mathematics caused in the sport of road race cycling. She won an Olympic Gold apparently without the knowledge of her competitors.
Austrian mathematician Anna Kiesenhofer came into the race unknown and unheralded. She didn’t have a coach or support team. What she had was a strategy, and the lessons of Kaizen. She is neither Chinese nor British, but to get to gold she used the very methods they adopted. And then put a twist on it.
The road race at the Olympics is unlike any other cycling event in the world. There are no race radios, no formal teams to work with to formulate and execute a team strategy. You are on your own, often for tens of kilometres through varied terrain. This is why cyclists have pelotons. Peloton refers to the main group of cyclists who ride closely to each other. The idea is to save energy by staying close to a well-developed group and minimise chances of the drag to 5–10 per cent and make the bike go faster.
There is of course the obvious problem – the best and most experienced riders can keep their opponents in sight and make their move to race away to glory at a time that gives them the most advantage.
A few strong riders will always attempt to break away from the main peloton, trying to build such a commanding lead early in the race that the peloton cannot catch up before the finish. The riders who are in the lead, having broken away from the peloton are referred to as Tête de la Course (French for ‘Head of the Race’).
The mathematician and thinker in Kiesenhofer knew these obvious strategies, and as an outsider to the regulars, she knew she was unlikely to succeed using the same methods. She therefore had to think differently.
The road race in Tokyo is over 147 km from Musashinonomori Park to the Fuji International Speedway and involves a climb of 2,692 meters in the blistering heat of the peak Japanese summer.
The early breakaway was by a five-woman group formed by Kiesenhofer, South Africa’s Carla Oberholzer, Namibia’s Vera Looser, Poland’s Anna Plichta, and Israel’s Omer Shapira. With 50km to go, Dutch racer Demi Vollering attacked up the road, forcing the peloton in front to speed up through the pain of the uphill climb. Another Dutch rider Van Vleuten followed Vollering’s lead and attacked immediately after the gap closed. She then went ahead of the peloton and extended her lead to over a minute.
With 40km to go, what no one realised was that Kiesenhofer was not in the peloton anymore. She was actually ahead of Van Vleuten, riding solo and steadily increasing her lead. This was when her unconventional move kicked in.
One of the strategies that Tour de France cyclists in the French Alps adopt time and again, is speeding ahead of the peloton between 10 to 20km at a time to gain decisive leads. The researcher in Kiesenhofer knew, however, that there have been exceptions, notably France’s Albert Bourlon who made a 253km breakaway in 1947. So it was possible to take longer leads.
But there was a crucial element to consider. The Tour de France is a 3,414km long race. So what the topical individual or groups do at a time is for less than 0.3 per cent of the distance. Even Bourlon achieved it for about 7 per cent of the total distance.
The strategy the Austrian mathematician adopted was bold, imaginative, and utterly unconventional in its execution. With 40km to go, she knew she was ahead of Van Vleuten and out of sight among the mountain bends. So she speeded up. She knew 27 per cent of the race was yet to be run, but if she went far enough ahead and then increased her speed on the downhill stretch to the Fuji International Speedway, she would be too far away to be caught by the time the rest of the field made the move.
The strategy succeeded beyond her wildest dreams. The peloton that pursued Van Vleuten had simply forgotten that Kiesenhofer was ahead of them.
As the Dutch winner of the UCI Women’s World Tour in 2018 and the Women’s Road World Cup in 2011 triumphantly crossed the finish line in 3:54.00 arms up in the air and broke into tears, she saw Kiesenhofer standing in front holding the Austrian flag. The mirage of gold had turned into the reality of silver. She would say later: “Yes, I thought I had won. I’m gutted about this, of course. At first I felt really stupid, but then the others (her teammates) also did not know who had won.”
Let’s think about this – not even Kiesenhofer’s teammates knew that she had finished a minute and fifteen seconds ahead of Van Vluten.
The Austrian with a Master’s degree in Mathematics from University of Cambridge, and a PhD in applied mathematics from Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona, had outwitted and physically overwhelmed the greatest road racers of her time. And they hadn’t even realised it.
As human beings strive for the Olympic ideals of faster, stronger, higher, their quest for that crucial edge will continue unabated – the bullet that finishes 0.5mm closer, the oar that comes down just a bit straighter, the bike that goes one per cent faster.
Bindra. Redgrave. Gröbler. Kiesenhofer. These are not geniuses, just human beings in the quest for perfection. They have not reinvented the wheel in their sport, merely made it go faster. Through determination, hard work, self-belief, and an ability to visualise the unimagined, they have lowered the horizons of possibility. In doing that, they have converted their dreams into gold. We can too.
Anindya Dutta @Cric_Writer is a sports columnist and author of Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling, and Advantage India: The Story of Indian Tennis. Views are personal.