Anjali Bhagwat: ‘We lost our focus’

Anjali Bhagwat is of the view that Indian shooters in Rio did not look tuned to meet the challenges. "They didn’t look ready to perform in the Olympics," she says while talking of India’s abysmal performance in shooting at Rio 2016.

Anjali Bhagwat is critical of the Indian system saying it laid too much emphasis on scores. "They killed all the good shooters with the calculations," she avers.   -  Getty Images

Anjali Bhagwat is a pioneer in Indian sports. She was the first Indian woman shooter to make it to an Olympic final. She entered the air rifle final on debut in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where Abhinav Bindra, the youngest shooter in the field, missed the final of the men’s event by one point.

Those were the early days of Indian shooting, even though Jaspal Rana, a talented teenager, had revolutionised the sport earlier by winning the centre-fire pistol gold in the 1994 Asian Games.

The excellent coaching methods of Tibor Gonczol and Laszlo Szucsak laid the foundation for India’s Olympic glory. Of course, the shotgun coach, Marcello Dradi, has also been associated with Indian shooting for long, guiding Manavjit Singh Sandhu to the World Championship in 2006, apart from helping Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, the silver medal winner in double trap in the 2004 Athens Olympics, in his formative years.

While Dradi continues to be with Indian shooting without being able to deliver much success in recent times, Gonczol’s services were cut short on a flimsy rule that he was past 70 years of age. Szucsak too had to move to greener pastures where his knowledge and methods would be well respected. He brought success to Iran.

 

Even though Indian shooting progressed briskly, with Rathore winning the silver medal in Athens 2004, Abhinav Bindra claiming the only individual Olympic gold, in Beijing 2008, and Vijay Kumar (rapid fire pistol) and Gagan Narang (air rifle) winning a silver and bronze respectively in the London Olympics, it hit a massive road block in Rio 2016. Indian shooters returning home from the Olympics without a medal was a shocker. However, there were some interesting moments for Indians in Rio. Like Abhinav Bindra missing the air rifle bronze in a shoot-off to finish fourth; skeet shooter Mairaj Ahmad Khan firing 121 out of 125 and missing the knockout phase in another shoot-off, and the ‘Man with the Golden Arm’, Jitu Rai, finishing eighth in air pistol and missing the final of the 50-metre free pistol with a 7 on the penultimate shot in qualification.

Quite vocal and much to the discomfiture of the authorities governing the sport, Anjali stated categorically that the Indian shooters in Rio did not look tuned to meet the challenges.

“They didn’t look ready to perform in the Olympics,” she said.

 

Anjali, however, acknowledged that Bindra, competing in his fifth Olympics, was an exception and Mairaj had a great coach in Ennio Falco.

“I remember the time we used to stay focused for about a month before the Olympics. We would be put through a strict regimen by Tibor and Laszlo,” she recalled.

Anjali said she was disappointed with the quality and knowledge of the foreign experts who were handling the pistol and rifle shooters in the country, especially those who were responsible for the Olympic preparations. According to her, more than anything, the foundation had been shaken with too much emphasis on scores.

“They killed all the good shooters with the calculations. Shooters were busy calculating their scores and wondering whether they shoot in a competition or skip it to retain their averages. Moreover, for two years, the focus was only on quota place which completely took away our strength,” Anjali averred.

The strength of Indian shooting, over the years, was its constant exposure to world-class competition. The four World Cups in a season helped the shooters to assess their progress by competing with the best in the world. There was hunger and intensity to excel.

The policy was such that instead of five shooters in each event, only three were supported. Later, it was only the Olympic qualified shooters who got the support.

“On the one hand, you become stingy while dealing with all the good shooters who have worked very hard to reach world standards. Some of them were unlucky not to get an Olympic quota place, and they were dumped. But in the Olympic year, you have such a big budget for the juniors. It did not make any sense. We lost our focus and our priorities were misplaced,” observed Anjali.

“Both Apurvi Chandela and Chain Singh were shooting so good. What happened to them in the Olympics? Maybe, they were not trained properly to peak at the Olympics,” she remarked.

Anjali was upset that there was a mad rush to grab the money — about Rs. one crore — meant for each shooter who had qualified for the Olympics and spend it in some way, without a good plan based on the need of the hour.

“Forget what has happened. We can’t change anything. Look at the current scenario, and how we have started (our preparation) for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. The selection trials have come up suddenly. My students were having physical training. They have exams. How do you expect them to shoot good scores? The range in Delhi is unable to cope with the rains. Despite so many years of pleading, the targets have not been covered. There is no guarantee that they are calibrated to show correct scores. The overall scores are low. They have doubled the entry fee for the shooters, but the conditions have become worse,” said Anjali, extremely agitated as crores of rupees had been spent in getting the range ready for the Asia Olympic qualification event.

She is equally disgusted with the poor planning of the calendar.

“When it is cold, they have a camp or trial in Delhi. When it is hot, they go to Kerala. No matter what the season is, the shooters are constantly tortured. How do you expect them to give good scores? And then you come up with the point of Minimum Travel Score (MTS) and stop their growth,” Anjali said.

Anjali, who had won a World Cup Final gold and World Cup silver apart from several medals in other tournaments, including the Commonwealth Games, was of the view that everything was done to suit the convenience of the national federation, and towards fulfilling formalities.

“The interest of the shooters is the least of the priorities. It hurts to see this, year after year,” she said.

Anjali feels that the missing link between the shooters and the federation needs to be filled by competent people in the larger interest of Indian shooting, which has no dearth of talent but lacks vision in planning.

Indian shooting needs to empower its elite and create a conducive atmosphere for talent to blossom and match up to the exacting world standards.

Rio 2016 has to be viewed as a wake-up call.