Navneet Singh and Avishek Roy
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Back in September 2018, Apurvi Chandela and Anjum Moudgil sealed India’s first two quota places for the Tokyo Olympics. For the next 18 months, they, like many of their fellow shooters, competed at a frenetic pace to bring India unprecedented success in the sport. India finished 2019 at the top of the medal tally at shooting world cups, beating powerhouses like China and the US for the first time, and won a record 15 quotas for the Olympics. World records were breached multiple times in domestic competitions, and at one point last year, the world’s top 3 shooters in women’s 10m air rifle were all from India. At the moment, we can boast of two shooters who are No 1 in the world, and two who are No.2. If Tokyo 2020 had not been postponed by the pandemic, Indian shooters would have headed for the Olympics confident of pulling off their best ever show.
Now that’s all up in the air. Just when the Indian team for the Tokyo Olympics was to be finalized, the pandemic postponed the Olympics for a year. Shooting quotas go to the country and not to individual athletes, and it is up to the federation to select the Olympic team. Will the shooters who worked so brilliantly for over a year to secure quotas, the ones who are top of the rankings right now, the ones who won all those world cup medals be the same ones representing India in Tokyo next year? Unlikely, going by the rapid flux in performances that usually defines the shooting sport.
London Olympics bronze medallist Gagan Narang, who also coaches some of India’s best shooters right now, says, “the nature of the sport doesn’t guarantee that those selected at this time would be able to deliver the goods.”
The National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) is in a difficult spot: do they announce the team now to reward 18 months of incredible performances, or pick their team closer to the Olympics?
The 15 shooters who have secured quota places would want the uncertainty to end. A place in the team would allow shooters to focus better on their individual preparations, believes Asian skeet champion Angadvir Singh Bajwa, who clinched a quota at the Asian Championships last November.
“Three or four months are not good enough time to prepare for an event like the Olympics. The more time we get the better,” he says.
The chances of international shooting competitions resuming in 2020 look bleak. If anything, the shooters will have to again prove themselves in domestic trials.
Bajwa wants the federation to have faith in those who have earned quotas for the country and not put them through more trials.
“If we continue to peak for domestic trials it would be all but over (their capacity to perform) by the time we approach the Olympics,” he says.
Former world No 1 in double trap, Ronjon Sodhi, believes the federation must speak to the leading shooters about its action plan. “There are youngsters in the core group and keeping them on track is important,’’ he says.
Back in 2008, Sodhi was involved in a selfless act that exemplifies the complications facing shooters now. Less than two months before the 2008 Beijing Games, Sodhi had shot down the double trap world record. Yet, he ceded the quota to the 2004 Olympic silver medallist Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore.
“I was world no 2 at that time,” he says. “I opted out of the race because I felt that Rathore, who had won the quota for Beijing Olympics at the 2006 Cairo World Cup, deserved it more than me.”
That was a rare gesture, but Indian shooting today is no more about one or two big names. It is a constant churn of youngsters shooting world class scores in major competitions, and 15 months is a lot of time to play with.
Olympian Joydeep Karmakar, who now coaches top shooters, echoes Narang’s view.
“I know it will be heartbreaking for the shooters who earned quotas but we have to rise above the sentiments,” he says. “It is about the performance of the entire contingent. If the team is announced now, complacency will set in,” he says.
Karmakar says the federation needs a new plan.
“Indian shooting has great bench strength. You have to put it to use. Revamp or upgrade the existing selection policy on the same lines,” he says. “After the lockdown ends they can hold domestic trials, say with five top shooters. It might sound harsh but it’s required of an elite athlete. Everybody has to continue their struggle may be eight or nine months more.”
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