The way forward for Indian shooting

A drastic change of selection policy and a stringent measure to curtail international participation pose a fresh challenge in the season ahead.

Making a point: Abhinav Bindra felt strongly that the shooters were “inadequately prepared to face the crisis,” which invariably happens at the Olympics.   -  The Hindu photo library

Indian shooting had been dominant everywhere, and on top of the world for most of the time, till it slipped and fared miserably in the Tokyo Olympics.

The repeated topping of medals tally in the World Cups and a string of shooters figuring in the top-5 of world rankings made it look as if the shooters and coaches had unravelled the mystery of the blank show in the Rio Olympics in 2016. However, it was not to be, as Tokyo proved a repeat show.

Indian shooting is back to square one, but with revised priorities. A drastic change of selection policy and a stringent measure to curtail international participation, of not more than two World Cups in a season for any shooter, possibly to preserve their hunger to excel at the highest level, poses a fresh challenge in the season ahead.

The International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF) is expected to list the Olympic qualification process by March, after getting approval from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Missing the target: Even though India had the services of Pavel Smirnov, the pistol coach who guided Vijay Kumar to the rapid fire pistol silver in the London Olympics, it lacked the master guidance for the whole contingent in Tokyo.   -  KAMESH SRINIVASAN

 

The 15 Indian shooters who competed in Tokyo did not have much time to recover and had a mixed fare in the national championship. Some of them may struggle to make the national team this season, as everything starts afresh, with the past records and scores wiped clean. The selection trials, along with the scores in the national championship, will decide the national team for the World Cups starting in March in Egypt, but a surge in Covid cases forced the National federation to postpone the trials.

As it turned out, there was no time to wait for the selection trials to meet the entry deadline for the first World Cup in Cairo. The NRAI chose a 24-member team purely on the basis of performance in National championship. Many prominent shooters missed the flight.

READ: Srinjoy confident of good show in shooting World Cup

As Indian shooting looks to start from scratch, the national federation has closed the contract of all the coaches, both Indian and foreign, and advertised for fresh candidates for the next Olympic cycle.

Of course, it is not a comforting thought that the Paris Olympics is just two years away.

“By now, the coaches should have been decided. It is too late to get quality coaches,” observes Abhinav Bindra, the former World and Olympic champion, in a conversation with Sportstar, objectively looking at the state of the sport in the country.

“Indian shooting is in a slumber mode.”

Even though India had the services of Pavel Smirnov, the pistol coach who guided Vijay Kumar to the rapid fire pistol silver in the London Olympics, it lacked the master guidance for the whole contingent in Tokyo.

“A lot of small mistakes got amplified. The Olympics is a special event with a different aura. What happens in the Olympics is that the biggest weakness comes to the fore, exposing the inadequacy,” says Abhinav, as he looked back at India’s performance in Tokyo.

What is the formula that had helped Indian shooting win a gold, two silvers and a bronze medal at the Olympics in Athens, Beijing and London, which is perhaps missing now?

“The recent approach has been to treat the Olympics as another competition. That unfortunately underestimates the situation. Olympics calls for different preparation. As a shooter, you need to have your A-game 100 percent. As athletes, you need to dig deep in the Olympics. When we have been winning easily in other competitions, we were not trained to fight and dig deep to get good performances. You have to experience it. It is about knowing how to struggle and get the best performance,” says Abhinav, quickly admitting that he was from a different era and a “different school of thought.”

From that perspective, Abhinav feels strongly that the shooters were “inadequately prepared to face the crisis,” which invariably happens at the Olympics.

What has been baffling is that “there was no accountability, and no structures put in place,” despite having so many coaches. Eventually, nobody from the administration or the coaches put up their hand to say that “we got it wrong.”

Unless we recognise the mistakes and acknowledge them, it is hard to take the correct step forward.

Even though the shooters looked to have “over-trained,” in the long preparatory camp in Europe and were made to compete in a World Cup “too close” to the Olympics, and despite the views of some of the coaches to avoid such competition, Abhinav says that he would not blame the shooters, as the talented lot should have been guided better.

“When things are not going well, it is natural to over-train,” he says.

It is time to assimilate the lessons of Tokyo, and take the right step forward.

“I hope that the people running the show make correct decisions and move on,” says Abhinav.

Summing up, Abhinav feels “the biggest learning from the Olympics is that experience makes a difference. I understand that we were spoilt for choice, but you can’t underestimate the power of experience on the big stage. You need to have young shooters, but need to find the right balance. We did a lot of chopping and changing along the way,” As soon as the Olympics was over, it was time to put the “house in order,” and for athletes, “to take time out and reboot.”

“It was a small window that was available before the start of the fresh season, to work on fitness, technique etc. It was not the time for competition. Precision and good scores take time. I hope this time has adequately been utilised. Once the international competitions start, there will be no time to tune, as the race for Olympic qualification will also start,” says Abhinav.

Proving his worth: Double trap world champion Ankur Mittal (middle) asserted his versatility by winning the trap gold in the national shooting championships in Patiala recently.   -  SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

 

The national championship hosted in the end of 2021, and the scores forming the foundation for selection to the national squad, caught the cream of Indian shooting on the wrong foot.

While the likes of Saurabh Chaudhary, Manu Bhaker, Rahi Sarnobat, Divyansh Singh Panwar, Mairaj Ahmad Khan, Sanjeev Rajput, Aishwary Pratap Singh Tomar, either topped or stayed close to the top, the women rifle shooters Anjum Moudgil, Elavenil Valarivan and Apurvi Chandela shot below their best in air rifle which may make it hard for them to improve their average to facilitate national selection on the basis of future selection trials.

Abhishek Verma, Yashaswini Singh Deswal, Deepak Kumar were also in trouble with low scores. Tejaswini Sawant did not compete in the national championship, while skeet shooter Angad Bajwa opted to compete henceforth under the Canadian flag.

There are fresh challenges, as the ISSF has changed the format of competition for the finals. Indian shooting needs to adapt soon, as the shooters may take some time to settle into it. The top shooters had a taste of the new format in the President’s Cup, an event for the top-10 of the world at the end of the season.

Many talented shooters like 14-year-old Naamya Kapoor, who is the world junior champion in 25-metre sports pistol, Esha Singh, Sarabjot Singh, Shiva Narwal, Kiran Jadhav and Rajshree Sancheti were shaping up well with strong performances in the national championship.

To add to it, the double trap world champion Ankur Mittal asserted his versatility by winning the trap gold.

Regulars in the event, Olympian Kynan Chenai, Asian Games silver medallist Lakshay Shoran, and Prithviraj Tondaiman lost a bit of their grip.

Overall, Indian shooting has been operating brilliantly across all international competitions, except for the last two Olympics. The system needs a fine tuning for the Olympics, and not a total change or drastic steps. Only time will reveal the efficiency and effectiveness of the new system to elevate Indian shooting back to Olympic medals.