India’s national shooting coach Sunny Thomas paced up and down the athletes’ zone at the Guangzhou Shotgun Range on Sunday. He looked pale and troubled, the last 10 days at the 2010 Asian Games had gone completely against the expectations of the Indian shooting contingent, and this was the last chance for India to claim a gold medal in shooting.

Out of range: Omkar Singh failed to recover his form after the CWG. PTI photo

A few minutes later, Thomas had his trusted notebook open, and he could finally pen down the magic words—gold. Ronjan Sodhi shot a brilliant last round in double trap, overcoming a three-point deficit to lead the field by four points, and ending India’s gold drought in shooting.

“We really needed this gold," says Sodhi’s mentor and former national champion Morad Ali Khan. “Shooting is the No. 1 sport in India in terms of international medals won and to go back without a gold would have been really embarrassing."

With 14 gold medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Delhi just weeks before, an Olympic medallist and a world champion in the squad, India’s shooters were tipped to challenge China like never before in their own backyard. But what unfolded was an utter disaster. The big guns simply failed to boom at the right moment, while the second line crumbled without any semblance of a fight.

World record holder Gagan Narang got India off to a great start, pushing Chinese top gun Zhu Qinan all the way in the 10m air rifle final, before settling for silver. The Indian team of Narang, Abhinav Bindra and Sanjeev Rajput missed the team gold by just one point after a machine malfunction saw Bindra’s 42nd shot out of 60 register 7 instead of 9. Day 2 saw another gold elude the Indians with the women’s air pistol team of Heena Sidhu, Annu Raj Singh and Sonia Rai missing out in the 10m air pistol by a single point again. “I’m not giving excuses but I was not well and was on medication," says Sidhu. “I controlled my shooting but one shot was a 7 and that pulled us down."

The shooting squad’s performance over the next few days is typified by Omkar Singh—he won three gold medals at the Commonwealth Games, but failed to finish in the top three in any of his events at the Asiad. In the women’s individual shooting events, world record holder Tejaswini Sawant, Suma Shirur and Kavita Yadav could not even qualify for the finals.

“I just did not have the time to peak again after the highs of the Commonwealth Games," says Omkar. “We need at least three months to prepare for a major competition. We had just over a month here and there too we had some days off and attended some felicitation programmes."

Narang, who won four gold medals at the Commonwealth Games, but managed just two silver medals at the ongoing Asiad, refused to blame the system or the lack of training. “If we shot the way we shot in training, a few more gold medals would have come our way," Narang says. “But shooting depends entirely on your form on that particular day and anyone can have a bad day."

Sodhi too feels that the shooters did not get the time required for both recovery and training after the Commonwealth Games. “People win Olympic medals and then do not shoot for two years, so it’s not fair to blame the shooters," he says. “I left to train in Italy the day after the Commonwealth Games ended, and did not attend any ceremonies. Shooting is a mental game, so you need that space."

The schedule of the Asiad and Commonwealth Games were known for more than four years before the start of the events, yet the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) did nothing to ensure that the shooters were ready for both. The focus was kept on the Commonwealth Games instead of the Asian Games, where the standard is of Olympic level. A contentious selection policy meant that India’s shooters also went through multiple trials throughout the year just to be in the team. By the time they reached Guangzhou, they were fatigued. The Chinese trained exclusively for their home games, even skipping competitions such as the World Cup final, to ensure that they stayed fresh.

Faulty selection too played its part. Vijay Kumar, a medal hope in rapid fire, finished last among the three Indians in the field, because he spent the day before his pet event fighting a pitched battle in the air pistol team event, where India finished with a bronze.

The selection policy also meant that scores shot in trials at home with almost no pressure were given precedence ahead of established shooters with proven match temperament. Sodhi, for example, had equalled his own world record of 147/150 in the World Cup in Mexico earlier this year, but was not selected to defend his Asian Championship crown as he did not do well in the domestic trials. No Indian double trap shooter won any medal at the Asian Championship.

“No system is perfect," says Thomas, who offered to step down as chief national coach after 17 years in charge. “But we will sit down and see what went wrong. We have a meeting on 27 November and we will see how to improve the system."

Randhir Singh, secretary general of the Indian Olympic Association and the first Indian shooter to win an Asian Games gold (at the Bangkok Asian Games in 1978), says the selection policy needs to change. “There can be no match for international tournaments," Randhir says. “You have to take international scores into consideration when selecting the team. Only those who deliver at that level can absorb the pressure. The newcomers will crack."

Veteran shooter and Olympic medallist Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore too had criticized the selection policy before the Commonwealth Games, going as far as pulling himself out of the trials.

Sodhi’s gold will temper over the cracks but Indian shooting lost a great opportunity to announce its arrival as a team.

Digvijay Singh Deo is associate editor, sports, CNN-IBN, and is covering the Asian Games in Guangzhou, China.

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