Unprecedented success

Rathore had a good run-up to the Olympics. With some great thinking and judicious planning he shot down a silver, writes KAMESH SRINIVASAN.

KAMESH SRINIVASAN

IT was the morning after. The sun was bathing the region with mild warmth, and the cool breeze was invigorating. There was life in the atmosphere.

Yes, there was life in Indian sports after all. Some of us had believed it all along, seeing the sure signs, but most of the billion people would have realised the truth in the observation as Major Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore crowned himself with the olive wreath in Athens.

Hope springs eternal. It was time to stop hoping, and start winning. What a start by Rathore, four days into the Olympic Games.

"It is overwhelming to see the response. It is great to see what one medal can do for a nation. I thank all those who believed in me'', said Rathore, as he got on with the usual routine the day after winning the silver medal in double trap.

It was tough not to believe in the 34-year-old Rathore as one saw from close quarters what he could do to any field on his day.

There was the strong self-belief, the willingness to work hard, the eagerness to learn the nuances of the sport from the very best in the business, the urge to learn from others mistakes and more than anything else, the hunger for an Olympic medal.

For someone who had started in the sport, with a gun that had two triggers for the two birds, and "kicked like a mule'' in the Mavlankar competition and the National championship in 1998, Rathore has managed to achieve in double quicktime, what many have not been able to accomplish in a lifetime.

Dramatic

Of course, it did not come easy. Olympic medals are never up for grabs. In fact, his very qualification to the Olympics was quite dramatic, as Rathore came agonisingly close to the target in some of the World Cups including the one in Delhi last year, when he looked to have muffed a chance after being in line to grab his quota place.

The rest of the shooters in his discipline were perplexed as to how a man of his calibre had not won the quota yet. Rathore went on to do it in style with a World Championship medal in Nicosia last year. It was only the second medal in a World championship for Indian shooting, after the silver won by trap shooter Dr. Karni Singh in Rome in 1962.

When you qualify like that, you know that you are on par with the very best. Rathore had great success in the run-up to the Olympics. Actually, he was worried about winning too many before the real thing, and thus opted to train in Europe rather than compete in two of the World Cups. It was great thinking, and a lot of judicious planning.

Equally, he did not want to win the World Cup in Athens, as he thought that it would be difficult for him to return and try to win again.

Early in the season, he won the World Cup in Sydney, beating the World record holder and former World champion Daniele Di Spigno of Italy by eight points. Rathore won the Asian Championship in Bangkok in his bid to shoot at a difficult range, and competed in the Masters Cup in the Czech Republic in July to make a final check on his preparedness for the Olympics, as the machines used there were similar to the ones in Athens.

In the event, Rathore beat a World class field that had most of the Olympic qualified shooters, including the eventual Olympic gold medallist Ahmed Almaktoum, Daniele Di Spigno, Marco Innocenti and Mashfi Al-Mutairi. It was the final stamp, if there was need for one, before the final destination.

There was no questioning the ability of Rathore, as he had shown it to the world two years ago in Bisley, on another pleasant August afternoon, when he beat the Olympic champion Richard Faulds of Britain, the Olympic silver medallist Russell Mark of Australia, with a breathtaking 49 out of 50 in the final.

Rathore returned a career-best total of 191 then, a performance that gave him loads of confidence to set his goals a lot higher. If the rare 50 out of 50 in the first round of the World Championship in Lahti, Finland, a fortnight earlier gave him the encouragement, the Commonwealth Games gold convinced Rathore that he was ready for the big league.

"In the final he showed true character. I had seen it in the Commonwealth Games, and I saw it today'', said the Australian Russell Mark, who had been beaten by one point by Rathore in that epic final in Bisley. That will always be etched in memory as all the star shooters including the double Olympic gold medallist Michael Diamond of Australia had rushed to Rathore to congratulate him, saying "you are the champion man''.

Rathore's masterstroke during his preparation for the Olympics was to draft Russell Mark as his coach, along with the Italian Luca Marini. Mark had won the silver in Sydney and gold in Atlanta. He had won the World championship and had qualified for Athens too, but did not make the Australian team after the selection trials.

"I thought it was very important that Rathore get the best medal he possibly could in that situation. Nobody could have beaten Almaktoum today. He was far too ahead. Rathore was unlucky with the win in the second round, but shot fantastic in the final to win that silver. I feel very proud, and am happy for India'', said Mark. Indeed, the whole of India is overjoyed, for an individual Olympic medal has been all too rare in independent India. Leander Paes won the tennis bronze in Atlanta and Karnam Malleswari won the weightlifting bronze in Sydney.

"I am not happy that I won the medal. I am happy that India has won the medal. It is great for the Olympic disciplines. We have a lot of people who are capable of winning Olympic medals. The key is to believe in yourself and work towards it with all your energy and resources'', Rathore said.

Clinical precision

For some, it must have been perplexing to hear Rathore talking about winning an Olympic medal even before he had qualified to compete in the Olympic Games. Yet, there was no attempt to fool himself or the World as Rathore went about his task with clinical precision, keeping himself away from every possible distraction, including the media.

"Media is important, and it does not bother me. But, it is a mind game. You ask me a question, and I start thinking about an answer. I didn't want to waste that energy. You would kill me if I had not put 100 per cent in the competition. The idea was to channelise energy, and not spare anything'', said Rathore.

Quite humble in success, Rathore has shown the way to a success starved nation, the need to channelise physical and mental energy in pursuit of Olympic glory.

Even during the final in Athens, Rathore was concentration personified. He revealed later that he rebuked himself for having taken a fleeting glance at the scoreboard when he was walking from one station to another. That is the intensity.

Now that the silver is on hand, and we know what it takes to achieve it, the quest will be for the gold. It is not far away! If you have doubt, ask Rathore, who sees a better future for Indian sports, with the renewed focus on Olympic disciplines.