At the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006, the Indian shooting contingent just could not stop celebrating.
They could not stop winning either.
Gagan Narang sang loudly while showering to calm his nerves, and then went out to score 598 out of 600 in the men’s 10m air rifle competition, one of four gold medals in the event. Samresh Jung topped that with five gold medals, quickly earning the moniker “Goldfinger”. His wife Anuja Jung won gold in the women’s 50m rifle 3 positions event. When the guns stooped booming, India’s shooting tally stood at 15 gold, 6 silver and 3 bronze medals. It was the highest-ever haul by any country in shooting at the Commonwealth Games.
On target: Gagan Narang. Hindustan Times
When the Indian shooters take aim in Delhi this time, an Olympic gold medallist and five world record holders, including two world champions, will have their fingers on the trigger. No other sport in India can claim this kind of contemporary talent—in fact, few countries in the world can put together a team this accomplished.
The 2009 International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF) World Cup silver medallist and national champion in women’s 10m air pistol, Heena Sidhu, who is part of the 2010 Commonwealth Games squad, thinks a barrier was broken when Rajyavardhan Rathore won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics, India’s first in shooting.
“A lot of talented players started coming up after that medal,” she says. “Now after two Olympic medals and a number of World Cup and World Championship medals, shooting is becoming popular.”
Rathore points to a psychological factor as well. “We gave more than what was warranted towards foreign shooters,” he says. “We had this perception that with their numerous coaches, psychologists, equipment and better training conditions, they were superior to us. We lost before we even took part in the event. When one person wins, suddenly you realize everyone has their own demons.”
At the Delhi Games, 36 Indian shooters, led by Olympic medallist Abhinav Bindra, along with Samresh, Narang, world champions Tejaswini Sawant and Manavjit Singh, and world record holder Ronjan Sodhi, will be competing for the 120 medals at stake.
The depth of talent is so impressive in Indian shooting that even ace marksmen such as Joydeep Karmakar, who won a silver medal at the ISSF World Cup this March, missing the world record mark by one point, could not make it to the Commonwealth Games squad.
“It’s remarkably promising that we are collectively emerging to be the best, contradictory to the Indian ‘one man miracle’ phenomenon,” says Karmakar. “I believe the success till now is just the tip of an iceberg, the best is yet to come.”
Even Samresh, who was declared the best athlete at the 2006 Commonwealth Games for winning seven medals from the eight events he competed in, could only qualify for one event this time—standard pistol.
“We’ve only become stronger since 2006,” says Rathore. “I think it will be raining medals. The entire first half of the Commonwealth Games will be dominated by Indian shooters.”
But despite the unprecedented success, shooters still believe that the development of the sport in the country has been slow.
“The infrastructure hasn’t changed that much,” says Samresh, “compared to what we have achieved, we should have got much more.”
Sidhu points out that the national team has not had a pistol coach since August 2008.
“I have seen shooters doing extremely well from the grass-root level without any technical support from qualified coaches,” Karmakar adds. “There’s an acute shortage of coaches and a single foreign coach cannot manage a host of shooters in the camp.”
Financial help is yet another factor that shooters believe has not come their way. “Shooters are grossly underpaid considering that we have more than a dozen shooters in the Top 20 in the world,” says Karmakar.
“We do not have sponsors behind every shooter either,” Sidhu says. “But still shooters are there in every camp to practise and are also spending from their own pockets for the equipment and training.”
Samresh believes that the whole system of financing an athlete is “upside down”.
“People are given support only after they have achieved a lot of success, not when they need it,” he says. “It’s like you win a medal, and sell it for a pittance. The attitude is, ‘now you’ve won a medal, I’ll buy you for Rs 3 lakh, and then I own you, and I will parade you around.’”
The Union government’s policy of restricting import of competition arms and ammunition (which are non-lethal) by clubbing them with lethal weapons has also harmed Indian shooting.
“In 1998, when I started out, only the top 8 shooters in the country could import weapons,” Rathore says, “which means for years—decades—the top 8 did not change.”
In 2001, the privilege to import guns was extended to the top 25 shooters.
“Now anyone who qualifies for the Nationals can import guns,” says Samresh. “So some of our policies have improved. Also, earlier I could import only 5,000 rounds (ammunition) a year, now I can get 15,000, but even that is not enough.”
There are also significant problems in the distribution of the ammunition, which is handled solely by the National Rifle Association of India.
“If we need ammunition now to prepare for a competition, it will come three-four months later,” says Samresh.
“Why give this huge privilege and power of disbursing ammo to a single body?” asks Rathore. “Why not empower state governments to disburse ammo through shooting clubs?”
Through this maze of problems, however, Indian shooters have kept their aim steady for the Delhi Games.
“I can’t tell you how many and what colour the medals will be,” says Samresh, “but I can tell you, it’s going to be great.”