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India hails first individual Olympic champion

Aug. 11, 2008, 6:11 a.m. (ET)

NEW DELHI (AP) India celebrated its first ever individual Olympic gold medallist Monday, offering the shooter the accolades of a nation desperate for Olympic glory, lots of cash and a free lifetime pass to ride the railways.

Abhinav Bindra won gold in the 10-meter air rifle, ending decades of Olympic misery for India, the world's second most populous nation and a perennial underachiever at the games.

Television news channels were giddy in their coverage, showing footage of Bindra receiving his medal and the raising of the Indian flag on a continuos loop, interrupted only by interviews with his parents from their home in northern India.

"He's done the country proud, he's done us proud and himself proud," Bindra's mother Babli told the CNN-IBN news channel, noting that he was now probably the country's most eligible bachelor.

Praise poured in from India's president and prime minister who hailed his "golden performance."

It seemed almost everyone wanted to be associated with him.

India's Madhya Pradesh state announced a prize of 500,000 rupees (US$11,900) for Bindra, while the state of Maharashtra awarded him 1 million rupees (US$23,800) - even though he is not a resident of either. The impoverished state of Bihar said it would name a stadium after him.

Not to be outdone, his home state of Punjab awarded him 10 million rupees (US$238,000).

Meanwhile India's charismatic Railway Minister Lalu Prasad announced that Bindra would get a gold pass to go along with his gold medal - letting him and a companion ride the railways (in the first class, air conditioned compartments) free for the rest of his life.

"Bindra's remarkable achievement will inspire other Indian athletes to perform excellently in the remaining parts of the Olympics," Prasad said.

Bindra's gold medal ended a long drought for India which has never won an individual event before and last won a team gold at the 1980 Moscow Games in men's field hockey, a sport in which it once dominated but did not even qualify for at Beijing.

It's a sporting record that has long been regarded as an embarrassment for India, with its huge population of some 1.1 billion people.

In Athens, India won just one silver, while China, the only other country with a billion-plus population, won 63 medals - 32 of which were gold.

Bindra's father described the win as vindication.

"On the podium the Chinese man was crying, while today India is laughing," said his father A. S. Singh, referring to second place Chinese shooter Zhu Qinan.

Much of the reason for India's past failures is that with the country mired in poverty for much of the previous century, it had very little resources to devote to sport. And what there was went to the national obsession - the non-Olympic sport of cricket.

Indian Olympic Association president Suresh Kalmadi, who had warned the country not to expect many medals in Beijing, said he hoped the gold will inspire Indians beyond cricket.

"It's a great day in the history of Indian sports. Finally, we got an individual gold," Kalmadi told reporters in Beijing.

"Cricket rules the roost in India, but now the youngsters have a role model who plays some other sport. It augurs well for us," he said.

Perhaps, indicating the change, India's powerful cricket board announced that it to was giving Bindra a cash prize of 2.5 million rupees (US$60,000).