He is confidence personified

Prof. Sunny Thomas... played a significant role in the progress of Indian shooting.-

“I did not believe in ruling by the thumb. I was one among them. When I first addressed the shooters, I told them that if they respected me it should be out of love and not fear,” says former National coach Prof. Sunny Thomas. Kamesh Srinivasan listens in.

Whether you like him or envy him, there is no denying the fact that former National coach Prof. Sunny Thomas played a significant role in the progress of Indian shooting in the last two decades.

Towards the end of his stint as coach of the Indian team, there was criticism that he was more a manager than a coach. The point was he managed to develop the ‘great Indian team’ from scratch. Of course, foreign coaches played a key role in the technical development of the shooters, but it was Prof. Thomas who ensured that everyone pulled their weight in one direction.

When you look back and realise that even someone of great competence like Ric Charlesworth was not given the right atmosphere to take Indian hockey forward, you appreciate the cohesion with which the experts worked together in pulling Indian shooting ahead, thanks to the maturity and vision shown by Prof. Thomas.

For all the success in Indian shooting, winning medals at every level from SAF Games to World Championships and the Olympics, there has been one Dronacharya award, and it was conferred on Prof. Thomas way back in 2001. There was another lad who was presented the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award then — Abhinav Bindra — who went on to become the World and Olympic champion.

“I never applied for the job. It was offered to me’’, recalled Prof. Thomas, about being given the role of National coach by the then president of the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI), Kumar Surendra Singh.

“I was not confident of executing the job, but both Kumar Surendra Singh and the Secretary General Baljeet Singh Sethi had immense faith in me. They had seen me work during the Barcelona Olympics and believed that I could contribute to Indian shooting which was close to being taken away from the priority list of the government,” Prof. Thomas said.

The foundation for the healthy growth of Indian shooting was based on discipline. He achieved that by winning the confidence of the shooters.

“I did not believe in ruling by the thumb. I was one among them. When I first addressed the shooters, I told them that if they respected me it should be out of love and not fear,” observed Prof. Thomas, who had been a national champion in the rifle open sight event. Prof. Thomas was a qualified judge/jury and had officiated in the Asian Games held in New Delhi in 1982. He was associated with the national camps since 1984. He had also done the Olympic solidarity course for the coaches.

As an English professor for 34 years, who went on to retire as the vice-principal of St. Stephen’s College in Uzhavoor, Kerala, in 1997, Prof. Thomas was able to find time for the sport. His communication skill was of the highest standard and it was he who put the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and the NRAI on the same page and wavelength.

When he took the responsibility of being the national coach, Prof. Thomas was just paid the allowances. He joined only on one condition that he should be given flight ticket for rendering national duty, as he could not afford to spend 52 hours travelling one way from his home in Kerala. It was agreed and he was one of the first coaches to be given air fare by the government in 1993.

With Jaspal Rana winning the World junior gold in standard pistol in 1994 and clinching the first individual gold medal since Randhir Singh won in the Asian Games, in Hiroshima the same year, Indian shooting turned a new leaf. Prof. Thomas was on the side of the shooters and ensured that all their problems were addressed.

With foreign experts like Tibor Gonczol, Dr. Laszlo Hammerl and Laszlo Szucsak coming into the picture, Indian shooting progressed to a different league. The medals in the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, not to forget Jaspal Rana’s junior gold in the World Championship with a world record, paved the way for solid government support for the sport.

Prof. Thomas was ready to quit as the national coach right after the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok, but the NRAI was not willing to let him go and continued to retain him till the London Olympics.

“I had proposed to quit almost every four years, after the Athens Olympics when Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won the silver and after the Beijing Olympics when Abhinav Bindra won the gold, but I was asked to continue,” pointed out Prof. Thomas, stressing that he never wanted to hang on to the job despite the financial rewards in the form of government cash awards.

Of course, in later stages the government cash awards dried up in his case, as he recalled that the awards were still pending for the Olympics and World Championships apart from the Asian Championships. Authorities felt that he did not technically qualify as a coach. There was also a stage earlier when he happily shared more than half the amount of the awards with the foreign coaches.

Abhinav Bindra with Prof. Sunny Thomas.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

“I have no complaints. Shooting made me much better known than a retired professor,” he said.

“I could have easily focused on a few shooters and become their personal coach, but the great Indian team would not have been there,” said Prof. Thomas with conviction, emphasising that whatever he did was in the larger interest of Indian shooting.

“If the demands of the shooters were genuine, I would always fight for them. I also did not believe in making them gentlemen. They had a certain quality and it would not be fair to take the edge away in the name of discipline,” he said.

There was no doubt that Prof. Thomas was the buffer between the shooters on one side and the government and the federation on the other. He tackled the issues with competence as he travelled with the national team abroad more than 130 times. He did miss the Sydney Olympics in 2000, but made it to five Games. He had also been to five World Championships, six Asian Games, five Commonwealth Games and numerous World Cups and World Cup Finals.

The Commonwealth Games was another platform from where Indian shooting launched to global standards in a spectacular fashion. “When we won so many gold medals in the Commonwealth Games in 2002 in Manchester, the British used to say that we were teaching them how to sing our National anthem,” recalled Prof. Thomas with pride.

He, however, quickly pointed out that it was the Commonwealth Games in 2010 in Delhi that provided tremendous media coverage and made the Indian shooters popular.

“Shooting is not spectacular and thus people did not know much about it despite all the achievements. That changed with the Delhi Commonwealth Games,” said Prof. Thomas.

In his long stint, Prof. Thomas recalled the role of Tibor Gonczol, the Hungarian pistol coach settled in Australia, with gratitude. “Tibor helped me a lot in establishing a system. He was an Indian at heart. He was bold and was getting things done,” said Prof. Thomas.

Though he was fair to all and the shooters could approach him at any time, Prof. Thomas was clear that democratic approach would not help in winning medals and that the focus had to be on the best eventually.

He was also quite patient with the media and would spend hours with them, answering their questions, any time of the day or night, and educating them about the nuances of the sport. He had the facts and figures at his fingertips and could sum up a championship beautifully.

He could discuss on shooters and their performances with ease. Indian shooting owes the extensive media coverage for nearly two decades to Prof. Thomas.

“We must learn to treat sportspersons as human beings and understand that they are not machines,” he said, about the growing demand on the shooters to win medals all the time.

As the vice-president of the NRAI, Prof. Thomas does witness all the shooting events in the country and renders service in whatever role he is offered. He is of the view that the shooters would get used to the new rules in due course of time.

“The new rules are there and you can’t help it. Our shooters would adapt to it soon,” he said.

Thanks to the Kerala government, Prof. Thomas may run a shooting academy about 200 kilometres from his home, but quickly added that a lot of details had to be worked out. If anything, you can trust Prof. Thomas to work with dedication and diligence.

He may be envied for the rewards he had gained from the sport, but make no mistake he has gained a wealth of knowledge, much more than what anyone can gauge.