Jitu Rai: The Forgotten Star of Indian Shooting
India has become a force to be reckoned with in the sport of shooting. We have a slew of talented individuals who are consistently winning medals at the international stage. Jitu Rai was right at the centre of this rise. He was the poster boy of Indian shooting. However, in the years following his failure at the Rio Olympics he has slipped into obscurity.
In 2014 Jitu was a mainstay of the Indian shooting contingent, representing India in the 10 meter Air Pistol and the 50 meter Air Pistol events. He was on fire in the build-up to the 2016 Rio Olympics. He won a silver medal in 10 meter Air Pistol event at the Munich World Cup 2014. What followed was a silver and a gold in the 50-meter and 10-meter Air Pistol respectively at the Maribor World Cup, thereby becoming the first Indian to win multiple medals at the same World Cup event. A silver at the 2014 World Shooting Championships in Granada made him the first Indian to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. He also dazzled at the two major multi-sports events of 2014. He won a gold medal each at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games in Incheon. He was a huge favourite to stand on the podium in Rio and the entire nation was confident that Jitu Rai would bring back at least one Olympic medal.
Rio 2016 though was where it all started to go wrong. He came 8th in the 10-meter Air Pistol event. His pet event the 50-meter Air Pistol was next where he finished 12th in qualification with a score of 554. The 8th and final spot had been sealed with a score of 556. Jitu had scored 2 points lesser and it was a woeful 7 that he shot in the penultimate shot of qualifying that had led to his Olympic dream slipping away.
Jitu had cracked under pressure. He had failed to manage his time well and had only 15 minutes left for his last 10 shots. The conditions that day in Rio were not ideal for shooting with the wind playing havoc in a sport of millimeters. Jitu rushed and the result was heartbreaking. “Sapna toot gaya, kya karoon” said a shattered Jitu after the event.
Three years on it looks like Rio will be Jitu’s last Olympics. The International Olympic Committee wanted to achieve equal participation for men and women at the Tokyo Olympics and directed all sports federations to take steps in order to so. In order to adhere to this directive the International Shooting Sport Federation took a call to drop 3 existing events and replace them with mixed gender events. Of the three events to be dropped was Jitu’s beloved 50-meter Air Pistol event. Without his pet event he only had the 10-meter Air Pistol to focus on. Years of practice in the 50-meter event with the dream of an Olympic medal were now wasted.
Gold at the 2018 Commonwealth games was a false dawn. A serious dip in form followed. He was never the same shooter after his pet event was axed. He was dropped from the Indian contingent and has not made the cut since his Commonwealth triumph. In his absence pistol shooters Saurabh Chaudhary and Abhishek Verma have excelled. They both won quotas for the Olympics and are certain to be on the team for the Tokyo Olympics. Jitu’s chances of replacing either of them are near to impossible.
His underwhelming performances also saw him dropped from the Target Olympic Podium Scheme which provides financial assistance to Indian athletes chasing Olympic glory. Shooting is an extremely expensive sport. The equipment and ammunition needed cost a fair sum. Without the TOPS scheme Jitu Rai might not be able to chase his Olympic dream any longer.
Age is also not on his side. Currently 31, Jitu will be 36 years old by the time the 2024 Olympics come around. While it is not impossible to be an international shooter at that age the current trend in Indian shooting focuses on youngsters. Most of the Indian contingent is made up of teenagers. Saurabh Chaudhary who has replaced Jitu as the poster boy of Indian Shooting specializes in the 10-meter Air Pistol. Sourabh is just 16 years old and looks set to be a major part of India’s pistol shooting team for the foreseeable future.
India’s best shooter just a few years ago is now not even in the scheme of things. Jitu Rai unfortunately has become a story of what could have been.