London: When Gagan Narang said after winning the bronze medal in the 10m air rifle event that a heavy stone had been lifted from his chest, he could have been speaking for the entire Indian contingent here.
The first few days had suggested that this would be a dismal Olympics for India. The archery teams had flopped and from the first hockey match against the Netherlands, it was clear that India would make little headway in this discipline. Even the (relatively) meagre haul of three medals at Beijing was beginning to seem like a pipe dream. After Narang’s bronze, Vijay Kumar went one better to win a silver in the 25m rapid fire pistol. This not only revived hopes but also showed the way for India in this and, perhaps, future Olympics.
Vijay Kumar competes in the men’s shooting 25m rapid fire pistol qualification round at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Photo: Reuters
While Saina Nehwal’s march to an Olympic bronze in a formidable field has been the more cherished performance, it is in shooting that India has found succour and sustenance. Abhinav Bindra, gold medallist at Beijing, fell in the qualifiers in the 10m air rifle, but the performance of the others has revealed the depth and the class that exists in Indian shooting.
Joydeep Karmakar lost out on a bronze by a whisker in the 50m prone, and for most of the double trap event, Ronjan Sodhi looked like finding a place on the podium—till he lost his nerve in the last round of shots and faded away. But two medals from a squad of nine (there is scope for a third for Narang in the 50m rifle three position) is impressive going by any count—Vijay Kumar broke the existing Olympic record.
Had Bindra not been so off-colour, or Karmakar and Sodhi not got stage fright, the shooters alone could have swelled India’s medal tally beyond that at Beijing. Nevertheless, a strong case has been made for India to focus on this discipline to harvest a better crop of medals in the future.
Shooting got a boost after Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won a silver—the first-ever by an Indian in an individual event—at the Athens Games in 2004, but is still widely regarded as a fringe sport. It lacks the glamour of athletics and hockey, and still does not find wide acceptance among the masses—largely for reasons of ignorance.
In the early days, shooters from India were from erstwhile royalty (Karni Singh and Randhir Singh), while it is now believed to be the preserve of those from the armed forces (Rathore, Vijay, Sodhi) or the well-heeled (Bindra), not the ordinary enthusiast.
Shooters like Narang and Anjali Bhagwat have shown that even a lay person can excel at this sport. While Indian athletes will struggle to compete in disciplines which require great strength, stamina and athleticism because of their physical attributes, they can contest on equal terms in sports that demand focus, patience and concentration. Shooting is one of these as the spate of medals for Indians in Asian, Commonwealth Games and world championships have shown. The crux is of spotting talent and nurturing from the junior level itself.
Hurdles in importing arms and ammunition have been compounded by the utter lack of interest by the local associations and parents in promoting the sport. The unkempt, largely unoccupied shooting range in Mumbai at Worli is a striking example of this.
Exposure at the international level for the elite shooters comes next. Travel, equipment etc., does not come cheap. Thankfully for shooters like Bindra and Narang, organizations such as the LN Mittal Foundation and Olympic Gold Quest have helped them tide over financial constraints. But the gap is wide—in the number of people taking to shooting and the facilities that they can avail of. It is a no-brainer that if this gap is bridged, India’s medals at the Olympic will grow proportionally in this discipline.
Ayaz Memon writes a fortnightly column in Mint, Beyond Boundaries
Also Read | Right returns to the right investment