ISSF World Cup 2019: Gunning for glory, without gun

Mihir Vasavda
Goran Maksimovic, Japan's rifle team coach, is a 1988 Olympic gold medallist.

Goran Maksimovic is the coach of Japan's rifle team. But he isn't allowed to touch a rifle. The former Olympic champion, hired three months ago, has been handed the unenviable task of turning a mediocre Japanese team into a medal-winning bunch by the time the Tokyo Games begin next year. But the country's gun laws, among the strictest in the world, have put him in a peculiar position. "I can't touch the rifle. I am only allowed to speak and plan," Maksimovic says. "At best, I can show them positioning and posture. But I can't teach them triggering or anything like that."

It'll remain like that until he procures a firearms licence. To get that, he'll have to undergo a cumbersome bureaucratic process, according to which the Serb will have to appear for a police interview, sit for a written exam, pass a firing test and submit a doctor's certificate stating his mental fitness - and half-a-dozen other steps. Till then, he'll take his shooters for a camp abroad every time he has to teach them a new factor. "I wasn't told about this when they hired me," the 55-year-old says. "It's a strange, funny situation."

The surprises didn't end there. While Indian shooters are already winning international gold medals at the age of 16, that is the minimum age in Japan to start learning. Until then, they use laser rifle and pistols. In fact, to get his arms licence, Maksimovic will have to undergo a laser rifle test himself.

This isn't the first time Maksimovic finds himself stuck in such a scenario. Before he landed in Tokyo, the Seoul Olympics gold medallist - he won representing Yugoslavia - was in Tehran.

The place has a great shooting range, but few weapons and fewer ammunition. Some of their small bore shooters continue to use rifles which were imported for the 1974 Asian Games, and often run out of pellets as they are allowed to import just 1,000 of them - to be shared by the entire team - per year, a shooter says. In contrast, an Indian shooter is allowed to import 15,000 pellets a year, just for himself/herself.

Shooting has been part of all but two Olympic Games. But it is unlike any other Olympic discipline, not just because of the technicalities involved but owing to the sheer nature of the sport - involving guns, ammunition and so forth. Few sports are so reliant on a country's laws even for something as basic as a training session. The government does not set a limit on the number of hockey sticks one can import or the quantity of shuttles that a badminton player can use in a year, but everything pertaining to shooting is noted in black and white, and is part of the country's legislation.

At the ongoing World Cup, no shooter is allowed to take her or his weapon outside the range. Before they checked in at their hotel after landing in Delhi, each of the 500 shooters had to first store their weapons at the Dr Karni Singh Range.

They'll get them back on their way to the airport later this week. "The rule is that you cannot take the weapons outside the range. They have been allowed to bring rifles and pistols into the country just for competition purpose. Hence, it has to be kept at the competition venue and not at the hotel," says a range official.

It's a rule common in most countries. But gun regulations differ in degrees from place to place. In countries like Iran and Iraq, acquiring a licence isn't that big a headache but the political climate complicates matters for the country's shooters. Iraq's team leader at the World Cup, Riyadh Kadhim Al Fahham, says they have just 20 rifles in the entire country, shared by the 100-odd shooters. "We have to travel to Kuwait to purchase rifles. Sometimes, in desperate situations, we end up travelling to Iran," Al Fahham says.

Mired in problems

It is surprising Iraq should turn to Iran for help, considering the latter is mired in problems of its own. "We use some rifles which are 40 years ago. They write on the barrel, 'Made in West Germany'," says Iran's rifle coach Ebrahim Inanlou Shaviklou. "Around two years ago, I was in talks with a company in England about supplying rifle and ammunition. At first, they agreed to send some. But after a while, they mailed back saying it is not possible. It was an English company and now we have problems even from Germany and Austria. We can't get weapons or ammunition."

Lack of ammo means they often end up indulging in dry practice, which means just pointing an unloaded weapon at the target to improve sighting and stability. "At the national championships, we do not have 25m and 50m events because of lack of ammunition," Shaviklou says. Maksimovic adds: "There is a very big problem in Iran because of (US) sanctions."

The United States, on the other hand, has among the most liberal laws for target shooting - along with Germany - with barely any restrictions on the use of weapons or ammunition, and easiest access to ranges. Croatia may not be a shooting powerhouse, but the rules are almost equally easy-going. Rifle shooter Marin Cerina says it is possible to get a licence in his country by simply landing at the shooting range and signing up for membership. "You need to pass a test, which isn't difficult. Simple questions like 'will you shoot yourself, will you shoot your mother,'" he scoffs. "Nonsense stuff like that. I haven't heard that someone failed that test."

In South Korea and China, shooters are advised to keep the guns either at the range or at a local police station.

And while England has among the strictest laws in terms of acquiring and carrying firearms, they pale in comparison to Japan's. It's emerged as one of the concerns for shooters and officials who will travel to Tokyo for the Olympics next year.

"I did a judging course in Tokyo at the end of last year," says David Goodfellow, the chairman of International Shooting Sport Federation's rifle jury. "I requested them to take an air rifle and air pistol out of the range for demonstration but it wasn't possible because of their rules. We've got quite strict rules in England but Japan is stricter."

It's one of the reasons Japan has barely hosted an international shooting tournament. They've held World Cup just twice - in 1995 (big bore) and 1999 (trap) - apart from four Asian Championships. An Indian shooter, who travelled to Saitama for the 2017 continental tournament, says they were met by customs officials at the airport who noted serial numbers on their rifles and counted every bullet they carried. "It took more than an hour for us to just leave the airport," the shooter says. "Hopefully, it'll be smoother at the Olympics."

Maksimovic, meanwhile, expects just one thing - that he will at least be allowed to touch a rifle.