Without offering much action in terms of spectators’ involvement as in football, basketball or wrestling, except in the case of the shotgun events in which the clay birds in flight are powdered in a spectacular fashion, world shooting has managed to evolve nicely to retain its spot in the Olympics.
While Indian shooting had a massive boost with the conduct of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in 2010, with the Dr. Karni Singh Range in Tughlakabad getting upgraded to world standards, international shooting made a distinct deviation to make it simple for the spectators to enjoy the sport, especially in the finals.
There was a revolutionary idea, which the world body was reluctant to introduce full scale straightaway, but decided to give a taste of it to the world, and gauge its acceptance.
All the Olympic events in shooting have a marathon qualification section, followed by a sprint finish in the final. There is a time gap between the qualification phase and the final, which gives the shooters the time to regroup and plan their approach in the final.
An important aspect was the scores shot in the qualification round were carried into the final. Thus, if a shooter had established a good lead in qualification, he had to be just consistent in the final to emerge a champion. Even though the others around him may shoot brilliantly, they wouldn’t be able to overtake him.
But, by bringing a zero start to the final, which meant that the scores in the qualification were not counted for the final placings, as a test event in rapid fire pistol, the International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF), came up with a revolutionary idea that was not easily understood or accepted, by the shooters.
This change, executed a couple of years before the London Olympics, was targeted for its global presentation at the quadrennial event in 2012. The shooting world reluctantly got used to the change in the run up to the Olympics.
In bringing about an equality for all the six shooters in the final, as in the case of rapid fire pistol, and using their qualification scores only to evaluate their performance for entry into the finals, shooting offered a great chance for the less proficient to deliver the knock-out punch on the accomplished ones.
Vijay Kumar capitalised on the change to deliver the silver medal for India in the London Olympics.
The qualification topper, world champion Alexei Klimov of Russia, who had shot 592 out of 600 in qualification, four points better than any other shooter in that final, finished fourth. Vijay Kumar who had shot 585 in qualification was eventually beaten by four points by Leuris Pupo of Cuba for the gold.
In the old format, the Cuban who had shot 586 in qualification or Vijay would have had much less scope of overhauling the lead established by the Russian.
Along with the zero start, the final format for rapid fire had also been simplified. It was hard for fans to keep adding the decimals in the final to see who was leading. Of course, the tabulations were visible on screen, but it was felt to be complicated for easy assimilation.
The final shots were now getting graded either a ‘hit’ or ‘miss’ with scores of one and zero, depending on whether the shot fetched a score of 9.7 or more with its level of accuracy.
Thus, instead of adding five decimal scores after a series of five shots, fired in four seconds in the final, the fans had to just see simple digits of 0 to 5, to see how the shooters had fared in a sequence.
Without losing its core appeal, shooting was able to generate better interest among the fans, with the tuning of the scoring format. In providing a level playing field in the final, the sport offered a chance for everyone to aspire for the medals. So, it was not that important as to how well you fared in the qualification, as long as you made the cut, but everything depended on how energetic was the performance in the final.
Shooters had to change their strategy and not drain themselves in qualification, without losing their main objective of making the final.
Buoyed by the success of the event, the ISSF introduced ‘zero start’ across all events for the Rio Olympics. It was indeed a game-changer.
The shooting world did not take it lightly. The shooters and coaches were peeved that the hard work in qualification, largely counted for nothing. However, some did feel that the good shooters would eventually prevail.
“Changing is necessary, to keep our sport on top. The shooting sport has always been a leading one in the Olympic movement. And with the new finals we made an important step forward to keep that leading position,” said the President of the ISSF, Olegario Vazquez Rana.
The Secretary General of the ISSF, Franz Schreiber, put it more succinctly, by saying, “All sport must adapt to the digital era of technology and media. The time has come to adopt new finals which fulfil these objectives.”
There have also been many other changes, especially in shotgun, in which the throwing distance of the clay birds was changed to increase the difficulty and the challenge.
The ISSF also tuned the clothing rules for rifle, to limit the use of performance-enhancing clothing and equipment, while maximising the test of skill.
Unlike in the rapid fire pistol in the London Olympics, Indian shooting failed to capitalise on the change in the Rio Olympics as 12 shooters failed to win a medal. Indian shooting returned from the Olympics empty-handed for the first time in four editions.
After the silver medal of Rajyavardhan Rathore in double trap in the Athens Games (2004), Abhinav Bindra’s gold in air rifle in Bejing in 2008, and the two medals of Vijay Kumar, silver in rapid fire pistol, and Gagan Narang, bronze in air rifle, in London, Indian shooting was unable to convert an entry into finals into medals.
In Rio, Abhinav Bindra missed a medal by 0.1 point as he was tied for the bronze and lost the shoot-off, while Jitu Rai crashed out early in the air pistol final. Two other shooters, Mairaj Ahmad Khan in skeet and Gurpreet Singh in rapid fire pistol, had narrowly missed making the final.
Indian shooting regrouped itself in a brilliant fashion thereafter. Picking up the invaluable lessons from the Rio washout, it emerged as a world power and ensured the entry of 15 shooters for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Unlike Rio in 2016, which had 390 shooters, Tokyo will have only 360, which enhances the chances of everyone who makes it to the Games, to strike a medal or two.
More than the number of entries, Indian shooting asserted its strike power by topping the medals table in each of the four World Cups in rifle and pistol in Delhi, Beijing, Munich and Rio in 2019. To cap the superb run, the Indian shooters also topped the medals table in the World Cup Finals in Putian, China.
In the year-end rankings, three Indian shooters Elavenil Valarivan, Divyansh Singh Panwar and Saurabh Chaudhary were No.1 in the world, and presented the ‘Golden Target’ in a nice function in Munich by the ISSF.
The filtering of the shooters for the final was also tuned nicely by the introduction of decimal scoring in air rifle and prone events.
“I am a true supporter of the decimal scores in the qualification round. The qualification process was not sensitive enough for air rifle and prone,’’ said the Olympic champion, Niccolo Campriani of Italy.
Of course, the prone event was eventually taken off the Olympic programme. The double trap has also been eased out.
And the 50-metre free pistol also gave way, to the idea of gender equality. As an equal number of women had to be given the chance to compete in the Olympics, the ISSF introduced mixed air rifle, mixed air pistol and mixed trap as additional events in place of rifle prone, double trap and free pistol events.
World and Olympic champion Abhinav Bindra faced a lot of fire, for being a part of the approval process, for the change, as the Chairman of the athletes committee of the ISSF.
“Bindra, this is the worst decision ever made in ISSF,” Harald Stenvaag of Norway, a winner of two Olympic medals and three-time World Champion, was quoted as saying, on the removal of rifle prone from the Olympics.
“I am not the driving force behind any decision. It is a collective recommendation which is due to be taken up by the executive committee and admin council. You can all rest assured that I will voice all your concerns and thoughts as I have always done,” Abhinav Bindra had assured the shooting fraternity.
Interestingly, the introduction of mixed events has enhanced India’s chances on the global stage.
Saurabh Chaudhary and Manu Bhaker swept all the four gold medals in the World Cups this season. Manu, who is studying first year in college, also won the Asian Championship gold with Abhishek Verma, and the World Cup Finals gold in partnership with Russian Artem Chernousov.
Divyansh Singh Panwar, Deepak Kumar, Apurvi Chandela and Anjum Moudgil also won the World Cup medals in mixed air rifle, to assert India’s readiness to strike similar medals in the Olympics in Tokyo.
Indian shooting was also strengthened by the conduct of many World Cups, the Asian Championship and the Olympic qualifying event before the Rio Games, under the leadership of Raninder Singh, the president of the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI).
This is the ideal way to supplement the phenomenal support, in terms of finance and infrastructure, that the government is providing. No wonder India has become a world beater, nicely adapting to the changes along the way.
“Indian shooting has gone beyond the iconic names. We have got a good bench strength,” Raninder was once quoted.
Indeed, with its wide base, Indian shooting has been able develop high quality shooters.
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