Indian shooters, especially pistol exponents, will have their task cut out when they compete in the Asian Championships in Changwon, Korea from Sunday with an aim to secure 2024 Paris Olympics quota places and also carry forward their sterling performance at the recently-concluded Hangzhou Asian Games.
Indian shooters have so far won seven Paris quota slots for the country but none in the pistol category and the focus will firmly be on the likes of Manu Bhaker, Esha Singh, Rhythm Sangwan, Palak, Anish Bhanwala, Vijayveer Sidhu and Shiva Narwal, among others to end the drought.
With 24 Olympic quota places up for grabs across 12 events, India has the opportunity to cross the 15 slots it booked for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but it’s easier said than done, as powerhouses China, Japan and South Korea, among others will also be in the fray to grab the slots for Paris.
However, with India returning with a best-ever haul of 22 medals, including seven gold, from the Asian Games, the contingent would be geared up for the competition, though the Changwon event could turn out to be a far more competitive tournament than even the quadrennial showpiece, given that Olympic berths are at stake.
While the pistol shooters will definitely be under the spotlight in both the men’s and women’s section - and with it their army of national coaches, including Samaresh Jung and Ronajk Pandit - the championships will also give another opportunity to the likes of 10m air rifle marksman Divyansh Singh Panwar, trap marksman Prithviraj Tondaiman, Kynan Chenai and Zorawar Singh Sandhu to secure Paris berths.
For long the National Rifle Association of India’s (NRAI) policy to drop shooters who have already qualified for the Olympics, or make them compete for Ranking Points Only (RPO) in Olympic qualification tournaments, has resulted in many of them cooling their heels post securing the Games berths in the big championships that matter.
The likes of 10m air rifle world champion shooter Rudrankksh Patil, trap shooter Bhowneesh Mendiratta, world record holder in 50m rifle 3-positions Sift Kaur Samra and women’s trap shooter Rajeshwari Kumari, among others will be shooting in the RPO category, which rules them out from competing in the Finals of their respective events even if they become eligible to compete in the title round based on their scores.
The Asian Championships will be no different as the NRAI, in order to maximise the quota places for 2024 Paris, is giving preference to those who have not yet qualified for the Olympics.
Some experts like former Asian Games gold medallist in double trap, Khel Ratna awardee Ronjan Sodhi, and former NRAI national selector TS Dhillon feel it is demoralising for a shooter who has qualified for the Olympics to be dropped or compete as an RPO till a second quota place by a compatriot is not secured.
Only two Olympic quota places per event can be earned during the Olympic qualification cycle, which includes the World Championships, Asian Championships and the Final Olympic Qualification Championship.
In Rudrankksh’s case, he could not defend his 2022 World Championship title this year in Baku, as he was dropped from the squad, while three other country-mates were sent to the Azerbaijani capital to try their luck to win an Olympic quota in 10m air rifle.
The case of trap marksman Bhowneesh Mendiratta is even more curious, with the marksman, after becoming the first Indian in any sports discipline to secure an Olympic quota -- at the 2022 World Championships in Croatia -- getting dropped from the 2023 Worlds and not finding a berth in the Asian Games-bound squad.
He will be shooting in the RPO category in Changwon. He, has, however competed in a few World Cups, which are not Olympic qualification events and few top-level shooters compete in them these days.
“The momentum is lost if a shooter, who has qualified for the Olympics, is made to sit out and others are given the opportunity to earn more quota places for the country. The federation has to decide whether they want more Olympic quota places, or medals at the Games,” said Ronjan, the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games gold medallist in double trap.
“The pressure of competing in the Finals is an altogether different cup of tea. If you make shooters cool their heels, or make them compete in RPOs, they are effectively not competing for medals, which is not good. The more pressure situations they are given, the better,” added the former world No.1.
“The World Championships and Asian Championships are the main competitions. Gone are the days when World Cups used to earn quota places. The criteria has changed.
“So, if someone like Bhowneesh has competed in 3-4 World Cups this year, it is not the same as the World Championships as the participation of top marksmen is very thin in the World Cups,” he added.
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