Will there be roses for guns?

How did the same shooters, who displayed wonderful form in winning medals at World Cups and World Championships against the similar opponents, fumble at the Olympics? Most aspects are pretty much the same — the discipline, the rifle, and even the opponents.
Last Updated : 22 June 2024, 17:00 IST

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Bengaluru: One of the biggest disappointments for the Indian contingent in an otherwise exhilarating Tokyo Olympics, where Neeraj Chopra won post independent India's first track and field medal (gold) and finished with a record haul of seven medals, was the performance of the shooters. 

Medal winners at three successive Olympics since Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore bagged a silver at 2004 Athens Games, a lot was expected from the shooters despite a dismal outing at Rio de Janeiro 2016 when they drew blank. Around 15 of them packed bags to the Japanese capital, hoping not just to redeem themselves. But beset by nerves, overwhelmed by the occasion and hit by the mental toll the deadly Covid-19 pandemic took on them during the preparatory phase, the shooters misfired yet again. All the hype which generally comes in the build-up to the Olympics because of their good form, dissipated in the muggy air of Tokyo.

So, it was only natural for the National Rifle Association of India to do a post-mortem. One failure is an aberration but two in succession is a matter of deep concern. How did the same shooters, who displayed wonderful form in winning medals at World Cups and World Championships against the similar opponents, fumble at the Olympics? Most aspects are pretty much the same — the discipline, the rifle, and even the opponents. Just that the magnitude of the competition is higher with only the best in the world in action. But they do so against them at World Cups and triumph. So what eventually went wrong in Rio and Tokyo?

The findings, which involved detailed one-on-one discussions with shooters, revealed a lot of things that turned an eye-opener for NRAI. Some shooters, competing in their maiden Olympics in Tokyo, revealed that they were not only intimidated by the magnitude of competing in the Summer Games but were star-struck and somewhat overwhelmed by seeing several superstar athletes around them at Athletes Village and competition venues. Some said the pure pressure of competing at the Olympics took a toll on their psyche with many advocating having a full-time psychologist, not just at competitions but during training and preparations. 

Some felt the media hype, which surrounds the build-up to every Games, especially around shooters since Abhinav Bindra won India’s first individual gold medal at Beijing Olympics, played a part. Since Athens, shooters are expected to win a medal and these high expectations forced them into performing below par because of stress. Some felt while the training programme was good, it wasn’t holistic enough like some of the western nations do in terms of having multiple specialists to address various needs. This and a lot more came forth.

“In a country as big as India, expectations are always huge but winning an Olympic medal is a very hard affair,” Ronak Pandit, one of the national coaches, told DHoS. “Many of the shooters were extremely young and some of them were competing in their maiden Olympics. When you are constantly surrounded by greatness, it can be intimidating. At World Cups or World Championships, you have just top shooters around but at the Olympics, you are surrounded by athletes from various disciplines across the world. Be it a (Roger) Federer in tennis or in my case, I was overwhelmed at seeing swimming great (Ian) Thorpe. And some of them are the greatest in the world. It’s not easy to maintain your focus and in a sport like shooting where millimetres count, it can be hard.”

So with all the data in front of them, NRAI kick-started their rebuilding process in early 2022. In March, they appointed the renowned Pierre Beauchamp as the High Performance Director and tasked the French-Canadian with putting in place a new system that would ensure success for the shooters. Beauchamp got to work immediately and with the help of national coaches has revamped the structure that is seeing the shooters reap rich rewards. Beauchamp, a former athlete turned leading coach-psychologist now, started to give more importance to the mental aspect, knowing full well from his wisdom the role a strong mind plays in success. 

Psychologists, with speciality in working with shooters, were roped in full-time. Nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches, technical coaches, specialised training… Literally what all shooters had requested during the review, Beauchamp went about having them on board with full support from NRAI, the Sports Ministry and Sports Authority of India. NRAI also ensured personal coaches of shooters remained in the fray during regular training but worked in tandem with national programme, which at times led to flashpoints. 

The results are there to be seen. At the Asian Games in Hangzhou last year, the shooters won a whopping  7 gold, 9 silver and 6 bronze — the highest ever at the continental bash. Then they secured a record 21 of the 24 possible quotas for the Paris Olympics, including a full allocation of eight each in rifle and pistol events. They are just one behind powerhouse China, leaving NRAI a happy lot.

“With 21 quota places out of 24 for the Paris Olympics, we are just one behind powerhouse China. We are glad the efforts of the review process are bearing fruits now,” a delighted NRAI Secretary-General Kanwar Sultan Singh told DHoS.

“The twin flops really shook us. The same shooters who enjoyed such success in the Olympics cycle somehow faltered. Yes, Tokyo was hard because it was not like a normal Olympics because of Covid but we really wanted to know what was troubling them. The shooters wanted a holistic programme that tended to their physical, emotional and skill needs and we’ve pretty much implemented what they wanted. If you want to succeed at the highest level, there can’t be any compromises and we haven’t made any. They have performed exceptionally well in the last year and a half and it’s time now to go and enjoy Paris.”

Exceptionally well yes, as witnessed during the four trials that was conducted by NRAI in New Delhi and Bhopal before finalising the squad. Such was the competition and scores, the selection committee was forced to drop world champion Rudrankksh Patil, a quota place winner, because his performance at the trials wasn’t up to the mark. 

The prodigious Manu Bhaker has been chosen to compete in two events in what will be her second Olympics and a lot will be expected from the gifted 22-year-old who has been in sensational form. Bhaker isn’t just the sole young face in the 15-member rifle and pistol squad that was announced with the likes of Elavenil Valarivan (24), Ramita (20 years), Sift Kaur Samra (22), Aishwary Tomar (23), Arjun Cheema (23), Rhythm Sangwan (20), Anish (21), Vijayveer Sidhu (21) and Esha Singh (19) giving the Indian team an youthful and exuberant appeal. The average age of the pistol and rifle team is just 23.2.

So, can the young guns shoulder the heavy expectations and the cliched “billion hopes”?

“Over the last couple of years, we’ve been stressing on process rather than results. The approach should always be process-driven and not result-oriented. If our process is right, then success will automatically come. I honestly believe we’ve done all our processes right. Success at the Olympics depends on a lot of things, performance on that day, mindset, conditions etc. We’ve just told our shooters to enjoy the experience of competing at the Olympics without worrying about the outcome. We want them to enjoy rather than be stressed,” Pandit said.

Sultan is seeking a little bit of divine intervention so that all the process culminates in success. “We, I mean the federation, shooters and government, have done our bit. Now we want all the goodwill and prayers of a billion Indians for the shooters to succeed. Fingers crossed!”

Published 22 June 2024, 17:00 IST

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