On This Day, 2012: Gagan Narang wins bronze at London Games

Under pressure after two medal-less Olympic campaigns, Narang mentally shut the outside world and calmly clinched the bronze medal in London.

Relieved: Gagan Narang at the podium during the medal ceremony following the men’s 10m air rifle shooting final at the Olympic Games in London.   -  PTI

Indian marksman Gagan Narang, at third place, was merely 0.3 point ahead of Dutchman Peter Hellenbrand before the final competition shot of the 10m air rifle final at the Summer Games in London on 29 July, 2012. China’s Wang Tao, 0.4 short, was hot on the trail as well.

There were close to a thousand fans cheering on from the stands; a stunning majority of them Indians. In fact, such was the influx that the organisers had to shut the gates of the Royal Artillery Barracks minutes before the final.

But as a shooter, Narang says, you would have to know exactly how and when to mentally shut the outside world down to ease off match pressure.

Narang never looked at the crowd until the match ended. He also decided against going to the mixed zone after the qualification round and instead, plugged in his earphones to listen to some inspirational numbers. “There was a strong chance all of it could distract me from my goal. Generally, shooters tend to detach themselves from all human emotions during or before a competition because it makes you more attached to the outcome. It induces stress, anxiety and increases your heart-rate,” added the 37-year-old.

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The Chennai-born shooter closed his eyes one last time before executing his final shot to near perfection – a 10.7. While Wang hit a 10.4 to jump up to the fourth place, Hellenbrand gave in to the pressure to manage only a 9.7. One could see Narang passionately mouthing an inaudible “Yes!” as he checked his monitor before heaving a sigh of relief. He had won the bronze medal with a final score of 701.1, while Romanian Alin Moldoveanu (702.1) and Niccolò Campriani (701.5) of Italy registered gold and silver respectively, in the event.

‘Big monkey off my back’

“It was a big, big monkey off my back. This was my third Olympics. I had participated in the first one when I was a 21-year-old. It went by in a jiffy. (For) the second one, I was much better prepared. I had been World No. 1 two years ago and in good form but then of course things did not work out the way they should have in Beijing. But the fire was burning even brighter within me because I had narrowly missed out.

“Instead of trying for the first or second place, I tried to save my third position. Didn’t want to lose that spot. In the last three shots, I always shot after Wang finished. Because it might happen, that the other score motivates you to tweak your technique and execute the shot better. In all my last three shots, I scored more than him,” he said.

‘When you don’t win, it is not just you who suffers. The people closest to you do too.’

Narang was the only Indian interest in the finals after the 2008 gold-medallist in the same event, Abhinav Bindra, made a shock exit in the qualification, finishing 16th, with a score of 594. With that being the fourth day at the quadrennial showpiece and India yet to register a medal finish, Narang inadvertently raised the hopes of a billion back home. “London Games was a do-or-die situation for me. When you don’t win, it is not just you who suffers. The people closest to you do too - it took a toll on my parents. My mom was diagnosed with high sugar levels and was hospitalised after my match because of the stress. Until I came back to India, they did not even inform me.

“When I went home, I saw some reports on the table. I asked what they were and then I got to know the whole story. As is evident, another shock would have been difficult for them. I had to tell them that I am not close to winning a medal but I am still giving my best. Even if it doesn’t come nothing is going to change. At the same point of time, I was telling myself I have to win a medal, no matter what. You can only imagine how difficult that is.”

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Narang, who had won four gold medals at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, said when he had stepped into the range on the day he had worked towards the last four years, nothing seemed different or new. He said, “I had mentally rehearsed the sequences in my mind until the last shot of the finals. Whether I made it to the finals or not, I always prepared to be there and win, mentally. We had a pre-Olympic World Cup in the range. So it was familiar and I had kind of memorised the range and thought about things I would do, routines I would follow... sequentially all had been planned beforehand.”

Gagan Narang with the bronze medal alongside his parents at his Hyderabad residence. - V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

 

Even Narang’s warm-ups were different from the other shooters at the range. “I had told myself I would not hurry into the competition. At 9 o’clock the match started but until 9:30, I was still shooting sighters. Everyone was already into the 15th shot but I still hadn’t finished even my first. Some onlookers had started panicking. I told myself I wasn’t settled enough to start my match.

“At around 9:35, I started my competition shots. I shot a couple of 9s and after the second 9, I realised, if I have to be in the middle, I cannot shoot another 9. And if I need to be in a comfortable position of winning the medal, I need to shoot at least a 598. 598 was something I often shot in training but had never accomplished that in a competition. It never went beyond 597. It was something that I always aspired to shoot,” said Narang, who had shot the world-record perfect score of 600 twice in 2008.

Touch and go

Narang did finish third in qualification with 598 but shot the last round only in the dying moments. “My last shot came when there were only 25 seconds left on the clock. So it was a heart-in-mouth situation for many. But I was in control. I lifted my gun, with 60 seconds to go, and felt my heart beating quite fast. When I lifted it again, I knew I couldn’t cancel the shot because I’ll not have enough time left. And then I went on to shoot a high 10. It was a huge relief cause I knew I was then an Olympic finalist at least, if not anything else.”

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Narang might be able to live the Olympic dream once again through the eyes of mentees Elavenil Valarivan or Shreya Agrawal if they make it to Tokyo next year. But for the shooting guru, all that matters is hearing the national anthem being played during the medal ceremony even as the Indian flag gets hoisted. “I am happy as long as India is winning medals - if not in shooting, then in any other sport. The degree ultimately comes to the nation so it is not about my student and it is not about someone else’s student. It is all about looking at a medal as an Indian. There is no name on a medal. So I hope the best person wins and the best person is from our country,” he signed off.

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