The rejoicing in the Indian shooting fraternity is palpable – and, to a large extent, justifiable. By securing a whopping 15 quotas, up from the 12 at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016, India has given itself more than a fair chance to return from Tokyo next year with a few medals from the shooting ranges.
It is commendable that India will have a full quota of 10m pistol and rifle shooters, guaranteeing itself six starts. And four starts in 50m three-position rifle competitions. Similarly, the women’s 25m pistol shooters have secured both quotas while two skeet shooters saved the shot gun squad the blushes, by being the only ones to make the grade.
Truth to tell, the young brigade has shown a remarkable fearlessness when it comes to competing in the higher echelons of the sport. And it is this quality, coupled with the discipline brought to bear on them by the coaches Jaspal Rana (pistol) and Suma Shirur (rifle), that always suggested that the number of Olympic quotas for India would be the highest in the history of the sport.
There must be no doubt that the National Rifle Association of India and the Sports Authority of India deserve credit for encouraging the shooters to find their best form at crucial times. Without such consistent backing of the officials, it may not have been possible for so many Indian shooters to make their mark.
The junior programme for pistol and rifle has led to the rise of some exciting talent in the past few years, the most notable of which are Saurabh Chauhdary and Manu Bhaker, Yashaswini Deswal and Chinki Yadav, Aishwary Pratap Singh Tomar and Divyansh Panwar. There is no doubt that most other federations can take a leaf out of NRAI’s book in investing in their junior programmes.
Speaking of National Sports Federations learning from one another’s experience, one of the key decisions that led to such positive results was born out of NRAI’s decision to emulate the National Sports Federations in Athletics, Badminton, Boxing, Weightlifting and Wrestling who keep their elite athletes engaged in national camps through the year.
And at a micro level, Madhya Pradesh government’s investment in a shooting academy has paid dividends too, with the likes of Chinki Yadav and Aishwary Pratap Singh Tomar emerging from there to secure quotas for India. There is a lesson there for all gtate Governments to establish sports academies of quality, with the right coaches in place.
Skeet shooting coach Ennio Falco’s unshakeable resolve in getting the team primed up to secure two quotas at the Asian Championship is another key factor that worked in India’s favour. For a team that has flown under the radar, Angad Singh Bajwa and Mairaj Ahmed Khan nailed quotas in great style and capped that with a gold-silver showing in the final.
And, it must not be forgotten that the vastly seasoned shooters like Sanjeev Rajput and Tejaswini Sawant have been able to hold their own and secure berths in the men and women’s 50m three-position event. Their single-minded quest has produced results and they will now have to remain focused and train so that they can get to the respective finals.
The women’s 10m Air Rifle shooters, Apurvi Chandela and Anjum Mudgil have shown that it is possible to stay on top of the game despite having been among the first to secure quotas for India. Their focus is praise-worthy and all of India will hope that this pair will continue to inspire the whole squad to embrace such a quality.
Having said that, the challenge ahead for NRAI is to ensure that its selection is fair and early, giving the chosen shooters time to prepare themselves for the Olympic Games. It is crucial that any quota swap that it does, say to ensure Manu Bhaker has a go at the 25m pistol event as well, is rooted in logic. It must resist the temptation of having a Trap shooter in the squad as a formality.
NRAI and SAI must continue the support extended to the shooters who have secured a quota while not ignoring those who have missed out. Together, with the coaches and shooters, they must make sure that they are in form and in competitive trim rather than be jaded because of excessive training and competition in the first half of next year.
For it is vital to remember that while qualifying is one thing, performing well in the Olympic Games is altogether a different challenge. NRAI does not have to look further back than 2016 to know that having many quotas does not necessarily translate to memorable outcomes in the biggest celebration of sport.
India had secured 12 quotas (18 starts) and returned empty-handed, with Abhinav Bindra’s gallant fourth-place finish in the 10m air rifle final, and Jitu Rai’s eighth place in the 10m air pistol final being the highlights. Gurpreet Singh’s seventh place in 25m rapid fire pistol and Skeet shooter Mairaj Khan missing out of the final in a shoot-off were the other notable performances.
Still Many Events India Missed
Yet, in the euphoria of a number of quotas earned for India for the 2020 Olympic Games, the decision-makers in NRAI and the Sports Authority of India must not ignore lessons from not being able to have a single shooter in a third of the 15 events that form the Olympic programme. It is not as if India did not have shooters of quality in these events.
There will have to be some introspection into how the men’s 25m rapid fire pistol squad, especially the talented Anish Bhanwala, and the men and women Trap shooters did not make the grade. Anish Bhanwala is ranked World No 15 while Gurpreet Singh has faded away to 77th in the 25m rapid fire event.
Of course, it must not be overlooked that the one time when he shot 588 in a World Cup qualifier, he knew that there were no quotas on offer after the International Shooting Sport Federation decision to penalise India for not granting visas to two Pakistan shooters. As irony would have it, both Pakistanis, Muhammad Khalil Akhtar and Ghulam Mustafa Bashir, secured quotas.
The trap shooters have been in national camps with Mansher Singh. It will be for the NRAI to figure out if the absence of long-term coach Marcello Dradi has had an impact on the performances of the Indian Trap shooters or if the quality of competition has been so high that they have missed out on securing tickets to the Tokyo Olympic Games.
(G Rajaraman is a Delhi-based student of sport who has been writing and commenting for 35 years. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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