The halls of the Beijing Shooting Range, 26km out west in the suburbs of the Shijingshan District, were meant in architectural terms, to pay tribute to a hunting bow. Maybe people could see the bow from a hot-air balloon. From the inside, the finals hall was a large, sealed box. High ceilings, curved walls on two sides, but the much advertised "eco-respiratory qualities" of its curtain walls were definitely not working. Air - it felt like the room needed air. And god, was it cold. The hands had gone clammy.
Every 10m air rifle shooting final is contested over decimal points past 10 and this was the most exacting of finals - at an Olympic Games. Our guy had opened up the final with a 10.7, and a set of 10.5s sent him into serious medal contention. So serious that the eco-respiratory walls were sucking oxygen out from the room. A big scoreboard at a height visible to the 2500 in attendance showed the standings. Our guy was somewhere near the top. You had to add up the qualifying scores as well, all the time, with every shot by every shooter from each of the eight shooting stations.
Numbers are not my thing and it was too much to handle. Suddenly he was on top of the standings but a joint No. 1, tied with a Finn. He can't see the standings, he can only see his scores.
It's our man's turn to shoot again. You hear the 8kg air rifle on his shoulder spit out its pellet, making a flat, sharp, clicking sound. It carries emphatic finality. The trigger has been released, the pellet has left the barrel, there is nothing more you can do. The pellet must travel its 32 feet and find the heart of the target's bullseye, which from that distance has a diameter of 0.5mm, the size of the full stop that ends this sentence.
"It was an unshackling of everything in our sport that had been held back, pushed aside and weighed down, a liberation of everything that was yet to be"
His score: 10.8. Holy guaca-genius-mole. The best anyone can get from a 10m air rifle final is 10.9; 10.8 is a heartbeat away from shooting perfection.
The mind has turned into scrambled eggs. Was that his ninth shot or tenth? Why does my notebook have no bloody notes? Ninth, had to be the ninth. So, calm down, don't be giddy, there is one more shot to go. Easy does it. But why is the Finn walking away? My hands are shaking. My breakfast is threatening to leave its building. I can hear Mini Kapoor, a fellow journalist who has taken proper notes and can do numbers correctly, next to me blabbering: "Gold, it's gold! He's won gold. Can't you see?"
Doesn't he have a tenth shot? Is this not going to be one of those almost-there, so-near-yet-so-far, weepy desi sports sagas? In which our hero misses out by a hundredth of a second or a tenth of a point, or tumbles out of contention with only ten seconds to go and we spend the next 150 years crying over it?
1. Abhinav Bindra (IND) 700.5
2. Zhu Qinan (CHN) 699.7
3. Henri Hakkinen (FIN) 699.4
Zhu Qinan was the defending champion, Hakkinen had entered the final as No. 1 from qualification, two points ahead of our guy. He was tied at No. 1, with only one shot left. Then Abhinav Bindra pulled the trigger and set us free.
"Maybe Bindra was the best guy to win India its first individual Olympic gold medal. The country, I thought, must be overdosing on happiness, but the man at the centre was holding it all together"
The lungs were suddenly overloaded. It was like being punched in the stomach and swooped high into the air at the same time. A rush, not adrenaline but rapture. An unshackling of everything in our sport that had been held back, pushed aside and weighed down, a liberation of everything that was yet to be.
From that day the phrase "gold rush" acquired a fresh meaning for me, forever attached to an afternoon in a place called Shijingshan. All around, there were only grins. Cynicism had been clobbered to the ground. It was like every Indian heart was suddenly filled with silent singing. It would be early Monday in India - the news would ripple across the country, a distant Chinese whisper turning into a whoop of vicarious triumph.
In the history of national 'where were you when...' questions, Bindra's gold will always be a top ten favourite. Eight years later, a younger colleague told me that he was one of hundreds of students in his Aurangabad school called in for a special general assembly and informed that India had won its first individual gold medal at the Olympic Games. When the news first hit the staff room, did the principal and teachers break out into dancing?
Psychologists tell us about left-brain, right-brain responses. Journalists, I think, have a third component in their nervous system. It is called the story-brain, which kicks in even after the system to process information has frozen or melted down. In Beijing I was working for India Today, (forever grateful, gentlemen) and knew I would have to look for details that wire services and newspaper reporters would not focus on. Stuff that would work for readers when read five days later.
First spotted: Bindra standing forlornly on the medals podium, wearing his India jacket and something between Bermuda shorts and capri-length pants. (Turned out his kit contained XXL track pants, which he could not wear.) Correction: he may have looked forlorn, but he was only being himself. Accepting of his environment, at home with stillness, familiar to silence. I suddenly remembered how earlier in the year Bindra had spent nine hours in a police station at Nanjing Airport patiently waiting for his gun to be cleared. On the podium, as the fuss whirled around, he is straight-faced, composed, way older than his 25 years.
"Many years later, I told Bindra about my system failure while watching him that morning. The tremors in the hands, cold sweat, the scrambled mind. He was amused, his response droll: "Welcome to every day of my shooting finals"
Later that afternoon, I track down Bühlmann, sitting in a "high-security, competitors-only" area smoking a cigarette. There is no security and I am not competing in anything other than information-gathering. Nobody cares.
Bühlmann tells me she is German-Swiss, coach-psychologist for Bindra for eight years and is waiting for another shooter she worked with to go through routines. She calls Bindra an "old soul" and talks about the final shot. Her thumbs up was meant to tell him he'd finished No. 1. Thumbs up to Indians only means "Well done". Bindra said he knew he had "probably won a medal" and went up to her asking if a shootout would be needed. "First", she said to him. "You are first. Gold." Bindra, she said, was to start laughing. In his book, he remembers asking her, "Did I win?" Many years later, I told Bindra about my system failure while watching him that morning. The tremors in the hands, cold sweat, the scrambled mind. He was amused, his response droll: "Welcome to every day of my shooting finals."
Did someone fiddle with the rifle and get the sights askew, or, as Bühlmann believed, did the gun get accidentally knocked out of its proper sighting settings? If finely tuned, a rifle requires one or two clicks to get it correctly set - left or right, lower or higher - just before a big round. With minutes to go before his second Olympic final, Bindra had to madly go through 40 clicks. Standing next to him was his Romanian rival Alin Moldoveanu, who sees the controlled frenzy and thinks the Indian has blown his chances, shot them to smithereens. Instead, Abhinav Bindra was to shoot himself into the history books, into eternity, into Indian folklore. Those last ten shots in Beijing produced 104.5, still the highest score ever in an Olympic final.
What India's first gold medal did was, irreversibly, irrevocably, adjust the sights for our sport and our athletes. It was to spread through Indian sport like a rash of astonishment and delight, and lead to an epidemic of belief and confidence. This, Abhinav Bindra was to show a slow, diffident, creaky sporting nation, is how far we can go. This is how high we can reach.
Sharda Ugra is a senior editor at ESPN.in