Building a Better World Through Sports: The Power of Athlete Role Models
Abhinav Bindra, India’s only individual Olympic Gold Medalist and 5-time Olympian, in conversation with Imran Nadaph, Certified Executive and Life Coach, and Program Manager: High-Performance Sports at ELMS Sports Foundation
As a celebrated athlete and sporting personality in India, Abhinav Bindra’s views and opinions are often sought when it comes to understanding what needs to be done to improve the performance of Indian athletes at the Olympics and other elite global competitions. On the occasion of ‘World Refugee Day’ however, when we got an opportunity to interview him for his recent involvement with the “Make A Mark” project, we thought it best to keep the focus of the conversation on the ability of elite athletes to drive social change and community development through sport.
Excerpts from the conversation:
IN - There is no doubt that sport is a strong stimulator of emotions, as it can bring tears of joy and inspire everyone. But we all know that there lies a much bigger potential in sport. Do you think those involved in elite sport should take on a more active role in using the power of sport for good? Particularly in these troubled times?
AB - I personally believe that elite athletes are role models to many as they show the world how sport has not just changed their lives but helped them become better people. There is always so much that can be done for the world through sport, and I would encourage every athlete to use their skills as athletes, or otherwise, to make a difference! We know that sport has the ability to transcend borders, race, and culture, and we must showcase it to as many as possible. If that is not possible, athletes can always take heart in knowing that as long as they remain honest and committed to their training, many around the world will continue to be inspired by them.
IN - Athletes, especially, are often looked upon as role models by the younger generation. How can they use this position and their ability to tap into their unique networks for advocating, raising funds, or even directly supporting initiatives to increase sporting opportunities for people coming from disadvantaged backgrounds?
AB - The first and primary initiative that athletes must begin with is helping create accessibility to sport for all. There is a large talent pool out there, especially in countries like India, that remains unidentified, or does not have access to the facilities. As individuals that have experienced the Elite Athlete Roadmap, it is important we first ensure that our efforts are directed toward maximisation of the available facilities, and then link stakeholders to collaborate. Aspects of fundraising, implementation, and other avenues will also fall into place once everyone works towards a call to action.
IN - The era of social media has ushered in a new reality. Athletes now have the ability to reach out and engage a much larger audience in a way that was not possible before. How can elite athletes use this powerful tool to amplify their voice and those of others in order to influence and help provide more opportunities for participation in sport?
AB - Digital media is a great way to communicate on a mass scale. Through it, fans are more engaged and have more access to their role models, and more people can share their stories. Online streaming has also made it easier to access viewing sport, and in a few years, it may well begin to be as prominent and lucrative as TV Rights. As a result, athletes can use their position to redirect people towards resources that can help in the setup and implementation of sport at the grassroot level. The need to create accessibility applies here as well.
IN- The Make A Mark project is a great example of combining the two objectives and using the core competencies of athletes and sports organizations to contribute more effectively. Tell us more about this initiative, your involvement in the project and how it came about?
AB - Make A Mark is a project initiated by Niccolo Campriani, a three-time Olympic champion, and one of the most decorated Air Rifle Shooting athletes in the world. Under this project, three refugees, Mahdi, Khaoula, and Luna, were selected from a group of eleven applicants, to help them rehabilitate their lives through the sport of shooting. Within the last year, from having never picked up a rifle in their life before, they are now training to qualify for the Olympic Games in Tokyo! Khaoula and Mahdi are already eligible for selection, and may well be a part of the Games.
As a member of the IOC Athletes' Commission, my travel got me in touch with Nicco in Lausanne, where he told me about his plans. I was taken in by the story, and more importantly, his passion for the concept. After interacting with Khaoula, Mahdi and Luna at the World Archery Excellence Centre, I was touched by their resolve and commitment, and felt that I had to contribute to the project. Since then, I have worked with the project through the Abhinav Bindra Foundation, including fundraising, creating assets for promotion, as well as organising a visit to India where the athletes could take advantage of my High Performance Centre in Bangalore.
IN - With one year under the belt, the athletes in the Make a Mark project have gone from strength to strength with support from a lot of well-wishers. How has the athlete community and the world come together to help improve this project?
AB - It has definitely been overwhelming to see the support that has come in from athletes and close friends of the Abhinav Bindra Foundation. To begin with, Juan Holgado (Olympic Champion, 1992, and Director of the World Archery Excellence Centre) provided a makeshift range for the athletes to train. The likes of Danka Bartekova (IOC Athletes’ Commission Vice-Chair), Pierre Edmund Piasecki (French Shooting Athlete), and Olegario Vázquez Raña (ISSF Honorary President and IOC Honorary Member) have visited the athletes and offered advice on their training. In fact, people from across the world have donated to the cause, as individuals and as companies, and for which we are very grateful. The Olympic Channel has also been following the athletes through the year and has launched a docu-series by the name “Taking Refuge,” which is out on the Olympic Channel website. Ricky Kej, a Grammy Winning Music Composer, also volunteered to make a theme song for the project and create a music video for the song! Many such parties have come together to either lend a helping hand or to spread the word. It goes to show the power that sport has to transcend borders, race, and culture.
IN - What are the next steps for the project?
AB - We are on standby for now to understand what the new schedules for qualification would be, and are planning training, next steps, and the push for Tokyo. In the meantime, we are looking for athletes that would look to expand this project into their respective sports and countries, where they can help refugees change their lives through sport. The idea is not to let this fade away after this project, but leave behind a legacy where more athletes take up the initiative all over the world, and as a result, take the opportunity to make a difference in the world through sport.
IN - Apart from your involvement in the Make A Mark project, you have also started your own foundation. What impact do you hope to achieve through it in the long term?
AB - The Abhinav Bindra Foundation is an initiative where I look to help bring global best practices to India in the sport ecosystem. Through education, intervention, and research, we look to influence the sporting landscape by collaborating with other stakeholders, focusing on skill development of coaches, athletes, and physiotherapists, as well as creating a platform for high performance sport. Over time, be it with social upliftment projects like Make A Mark, or the work we do with sports science across 6 cities in India, I hope that we can initiate a disruption in the way sport is perceived in India, and that we start accepting nothing but excellence!
IN - Finally, from your experience, what message would you like to give other athletes who would like to contribute but haven’t really found the best way to do it yet?
AB - Just like its importance in training, athletes need to be honest about what they wish to achieve. They should do whatever they believe they can do, and persevere and contribute in whatever way they can. The follow through is what counts, not the thought. Every athlete can make a difference in one way or the other, and I hope they find it in them to do what they can.