SHOOTING NOW NEEDS TO AIM HIGHER

Like chess, or billiards and snooker, perhaps shooting, where being overweight is acceptable and age no substantial barrier for it is a discipline that calls for more subtle virtues of hand and eye and mind, suits a nation not yet given to great feats of athleticism, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

Amidst the chaotic cacophony of urban India, and an energetic, brash generation in search of the good life, the country does not appear the contemplative, introspective land it once was. But perhaps in the shooting ranges of Melbourne, at the Commonwealth Games, some of the past silently came visiting.

Here, medals were won, a swag of them, not through any sweaty stretching of athletic sinew, nor success found with the furious pumping of legs. Instead men and women stood as motionless as yogis, pistol in hand yet as calmly concentrated as a sage, searching within to control emotions, manage their breathing, empty the mind, for shooting among many things is the art of subconscious. Perhaps, of course, it is not that we're merely accomplished at finding inner peace, but simply worse at purely physical pursuits.

Like chess, or billiards and snooker, perhaps shooting, where being overweight is acceptable and age no substantial barrier for it is a discipline that calls for more subtle virtues of hand and eye and mind, suits a nation not yet given to great feats of athleticism. Of course, this, too, may be a somewhat flawed theory, for India has won medals in weightlifting, the ultimate expression of power, though it is a completely static sport. Anyway, without diminishing the prowess of these Herculean men and women, already there is a suggestion, in two doping cases, that not all skill has a legitimate explanation.

Context is vital to India's success on the range, for such all-round excellence has been reserved mainly for the Commonwealth Games. Without detracting from fine performances, for to win at any level is an achievement, the best in the world had not congregated in Melbourne. Four years earlier in Manchester 2002, we won medals routinely with the gun, but in the period between those Games, only Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore translated such ability into an Olympic medal.

Still, amidst the whiff of gunpowder lingered the smell of a tiny revolution, and this is a sport India must pursue, for potential is evident with every squeeze of a trigger. Samaresh Jung, whose collection of medals promise to play havoc with metal detectors, is a talent too precious to waste with exploring how far he can go. And he is not alone.

Officials chatter on about superior facilities and free ammunition and priority sport, and while shooting has advanced in India, and they deserve some congratulation, it is a pursuit still reserved for few cities with adequate ranges, still lacks professional coaches in some disciplines.

What has helped is that, unlike so many sports, shooting's depth in India, in some events, is deep enough to provide competition even at home, every place must be fought for, and that is the best early education for a sportsman. Shooters, also, admitted to being provoked by the success of their peers; as one woman shooter explained, to see a colleague who practises alongside her, on the same range in India, with the same gun, win international medals, suggested immediately that she could do it, too. From each other is found, borrowed and stolen a precious belief.

It means the system has been issued a challenge, to nurture this generation of shooters, to discover the next, to grasp the opportunity that lies before them, to think big, and it will be a journey worth charting. Only because the system is famous for letting down its athletes.

India, once, in a still familiar past, was an early force in women's weightlifting on the world stage, but preferred chest-thumping to progress and a chance was gone in the snatch of a bar. At the Olympics, we have won only a single silver in the event. As shooting suggests, we are gifted at standing still, but the world moves on.

Now drug charges stalk some of our lifters, and while we are hardly the exception at international level, it is almost as if we expect to have an Indian lifter or two caught and shrug if they are. Somehow we are becoming immune to disgrace. If lifters are cleared by doping control in India and caught abroad, Sherlock Holmes is not required to figure out the problem.

Many lifters arrive from forgotten slivers of towns on the Indian landscape, and it is naive to believe they know which drug to take, can tell anabolic agents from beta blockers, diuretics from peptide hormones. Who is helping them fill those syringes? It matters. Because of the health of the athletes? Because of the example we set at home? Because for all the golds India wins, the blot of cheat remains. A lazy coach, or official, or athlete is doing an entire contingent, including honest weightlifters, a disservice.

Men's hockey has simply cheated itself, the most despairing example in India of a system that has collapsed under its own lethargy. In a moment, never to be forgotten, a young Australian asked me last week, after India failed to reach the semis: "Weren't you guys good at this once?"

In 31 years, since winning the 1975 World Cup, India has not won any of the three major tournaments, the Champions Trophy, World Cup, and the Olympics (barring the boycotted Moscow Games in 1980). So long ago was India accomplished at this stick art that memory has begun to fade. For a younger generation across the world, too busy to worry about an ancient history, we are, tragically, nothing but the hockey hopeless.