Gunning for Olympic glory

Right from the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, through the Asian Games in Palembang to the World Championship in Changwon, the Indian juniors have been registering excellent performances. This is a great sign.

Talented: Manu Bhaker impressed in the Commonwealth Games with a gold medal in the women’s air pistol event.   -  Getty Images

Indian shooting has been on a high this season, thanks to a flurry of medals in the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the World Championship.

It should augur well for the sport, in terms of total support that it can command, at least for the next two years at all levels.

Can this optimistic scenario lead to a few Olympic medals in Tokyo 2020?

Before we probe the subject, it has to be first agreed that Indian shooting has been quite healthy for the last two decades. The growth has been fabulous overall, even though the Olympic medals dried up in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

From four medals in three Olympics, including the gold in Beijing through Abhinav Bindra and the silver medals from Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore in Athens in 2004 and Vijay Kumar in London in 2012, slipping to zero did not project the sport in good light.

With Gagan Narang claiming a bronze in London, India has won two rifle medals, one in pistol and one in shotgun so far in the Olympics. That is a nice balance between all the three disciplines in the sport.

It was a heartbreak in Rio, as the medals eluded the grasp of some of the best, including Abhinav Bindra, pistol shooters Jitu Rai, Gurpreet Singh and skeet marksman Mairaj Ahmad Khan. Abhinav missed a medal by 0.1 point, Gurpreet Singh and Mairaj Khan narrowly missed the final, and Jitu Rai was not at his best in the final. The medals were within grasp, but eluded the Indians in the end.

The lone gold medallist: Abhinav Bindra is ecstatic after winning the men’s 10m air rifle final at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.   -  Getty Images

 

Is there any hint now about a possible revival of Olympic glory?

Right from the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, through the Asian Games in Palembang to the World Championship in Changwon, the Indian juniors have been registering excellent performances. This is a great sign, even for 2020.

If it was Anish Bhanwala and Manu Bhaker, the teenagers who impressed in the Commonwealth Games with gold in rapid fire pistol and women’s air pistol events respectively, it was the 16-year-old Saurabh Chaudhary who walked away with the men’s air pistol gold in the Asian Games.

In the World Championship in Korea, India was beaten by its own selection policy, when the focus should have been to win as many Olympic quota places as possible, rather than eyeing the junior medals.

First of all, Saurabh Chaudhary was in the junior field. So was Elavenil Valarivan in women’s air rifle. While Shahzar Rizvi and Om Prakash Mitharval failed along with Abhishek Verma, who had won the Asian Games bronze on his international debut, Saurabh won the junior gold with a world record. It is easy to be wise after the event! Yet, it was too glaring to stick to the original choice of Saurabh for the junior event. Indian shooting has seen very few names winning the Asian Games gold in the past — from Randhir Singh, Jaspal Rana through Ronjan Sodhi and Jitu Rai.

Prodigal talent: In the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia, Saurabh Chaudhary claimed the 10m air pistol gold. India had tied its own hands by not fielding the in-form Saurabh for an Olympic quota, during the recent World Championships in Changwon, Korea.   -  AFP

In the recently-concluded Asian Games in Indonesia, only Rahi Sarnobat and Saurabh Chaudhary claimed gold for India. Indian shooting then tied its own hands by not fielding the in-form Saurabh for an Olympic quota.

Maybe, the thought was that the Olympic quota can be won in future too, but the World Championship medal may have to wait for four years. It is easy to find fault after a bounty of medals!

In women’s air rifle, the absence of Elavenil did not hurt. In fact, Anjum Moudgil and Apurvi Chandela ended up winning the country’s only Olympic quota from the World Championship.

Even in the good tidings, there could be trouble. Anjum Moudgil has to be really sharp to retain her Olympic quota. She is a world record holder in the 50-metre rifle 3-position event, in which she will not be eligible to win any Olympic quota now. Whether anyone else would win that quota in the women’s rifle 3-position event, is a tricky question.

India won 27 medals to be placed third behind China (43) and Korea (36), ahead of Russia (37) as it had a lesser number of gold medals in the World Championship.

Silver lining: India’s Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore kisses his medal after finishing second in the the men’s double trap finals in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.   -  AP

The Indian seniors won four individual medals, including two gold. However, only Anjum won a medal in an Olympic event. Ankur Mittal and Om Prakash Mitharval won the men’s double trap and free pistol events, which have been dropped from the Tokyo 2020 schedule. Gurpreet Singh’s silver in standard pistol, was again in a non-Olympic event.

The men’s air pistol team won silver, which should provide the hope that they, along with Saurabh Chaudhary, would be able to clinch the Olympic quota in the World Cups or the Asian Championship next year.

The women’s air rifle team of Anjum, Apurvi and Mehuli Ghosh won silver to provide a very healthy picture, but India had already won a maximum possible two Olympic quotas in the event.

Both Elavenil and Mehuli are world class. Thus, it will be interesting to see how Anjum and Apurvi manage to hold on to their Olympic quotas.

The National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) has a clear policy for Olympic selection, based on international performance. But, a parallel selection policy for making the national team for the World Cups and Asian Championships may wreak havoc!

It is much in contrast to the Olympic selection policy. How will the best shooters stay in the reckoning, if they are kept out by the general selection policy?

The juniors have been outstanding, winning 11 individual medals including five gold, and nine team medals including four gold in the World Championship.

Hriday Hazarika and Saurabh Chaudhary won the air rifle and air pistol junior golds. The gold medals by twins Udhayveer Sidhu and Vijayveer Sidhu in the 25-metre events and Arjun Singh Cheema in 50-metre pistol, were in non-Olympic events.

Manisha Keer missing the gold in a shoot-off in the junior women’s trap event could possibly be a hint about a dark horse getting ready for Tokyo.

Except for the women’s air rifle junior gold, the rest of the three team gold medals in the juniors section were in non-Olympic events.

Surprise package: Vijay Kumar clinched the silver medal in the men’s 25m rapid fire pistol event at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.   -  PTI

In the 2002 World Championship in Lahti, Finland, Rajkumari Rathore shot the lone medal for the entire Indian contingent in junior women’s rifle prone event. In the same championship, Rajyavardhan Rathore had shot a perfect 50 in one of the qualifying rounds, a very rare phenomenon in those days. Despite him giving a strong hint about his prowess, the government officials dropped him from the Commonwealth Games squad subsequently. After going through agonising moments, Rathore did get into the team, and went on to win gold in double trap against world class opposition from Australia and Britain in Bisley, during the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. Two years later, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won the Olympic silver.

From that perspective, 27 medals in the World Championship should definitely hint at something better, as the Indian shooters train their sights on the Olympic quota places, before focusing on the Olympic medals. In the 2006 World Championship in Zagreb, Croatia, Abhinav Bindra and Manavjit Singh Sandhu won the men’s air rifle and trap gold respectively. All of a sudden, India had two world champions in Olympic events. Not surprisingly, Abhinav went on to win the Olympic gold two years later, while Sandhu is still aiming to taste Olympic success.

Coming back to the present, India missed a great chance to win the mixed Olympic quota places in Changwon. Now, the shooters have to win Olympic quotas individually and then form a team for the Olympics.

Fifty two medals in all, including 20 gold and 17 silver from the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the World Championships which are all held once in four years, should definitely mean something for Indian shooting. It should be interesting times ahead for Indian shooting, unless it shoots itself in the foot!