August 17, 2004: It was the day that witnessed Major Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore providing the silver lining for Indian sports. Yes, that was his rank in the army then, before he went on to become colonel and then the sports minister of the country.
It was his first Olympics, and the 34-year-old Rathore was practising the sport only for six years. Yet, we had a lot of faith in his ability as he was one of the favourites in double trap. He had qualified for the Games with the World Championships bronze in Nicosia. He had shot 48 out of 50 in that World Championships final, which was a clear indication that he had it in him to strike the big medal. In 2002, he had shot 49 out of 50 to win the Commonwealth Games gold in Bisley, beating world and Olympic champions.
Unlike the other shotgun events, the double trap was a one-day competition with three rounds of 50, followed by the final 50 in the afternoon.
Rathore started the day with 46, the second best total in the round. However, in the second round, the windy conditions teased him and he slipped to a 43, and the sixth place.
In the third round, Rathore shot 46, the third best score in that round, in a small field of 25. Even as we nervously did the calculations at the Markopoulo range, my friend Vimal Mohan of NDTV was quick to point that Rathore had made the cut, with 135.
Rathore had avoided the shoot-off for the last spot which was contested by five, including the future Olympic champion Fehaid Aldeehani.
It was a huge relief for us, especially after the previous day’s experience when Abhinav Bindra had made the final, but had missed a medal. Hope sprang up again.
The race for the gold had looked done even before the final, as Shaikh Ahmed Almaktoum of the UAE led the field with 144, following three rounds of 48.
Rathore was flawless as he went through the first 30 with one miss, when he enjoyed a four-point lead for the second place. Almaktoum did not miss one in the first 35, and sealed the gold after the 40th shot, with an unbeatable lead. Eventually, he had the gold with a 10-point margin.
“The last 10 shots were about the enjoyment of shooting,” Almaktoum said. It was the victory lap for Almaktoum, the prince of Kuwait, amidst the intense fight around him.
The class of Rathore was his strong finish on an energy-sapping day, when he admitted that he had “died many times in the final.” Rathore shot the last two pairs to capture the silver, one point ahead of Wang Zheng, and two ahead of Hu Binyuan and Hakan Dahlby.
After his last shot, Rathore punched the air in celebration.
Quite appropriately, Raja Randhir Singh, the six-time Olympian and Asian Games trap gold medallist, gave away the medals.
“I knew that he would do it. He was brilliant,” said Randhir.
“I am not specially happy that I have won the silver medal. I am happy that people will now believe that we can win silver medals in Olympic Games,” said Rathore, quite composed.
“Nobody could have beaten Almaktoum today. Rathore had beaten him three weeks back. That is the beauty of this sport. Rathore showed his true character in the final,” said Russell Mark, the Olympic gold and silver medallist, who guided Rathore for the Games.
Two days after the Independence Day, we had a lot to write about, the elevation of Indian sports to a different sphere, from the birth place of modern Olympics.
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