Rio Olympics 2016, India shooting: A case of so near yet so far for the shooting contingent
The season of despair is behind us, and what is left for us are pieces of shattered hopes and dreams to recollect and join together to see what went wrong, where. Probably, a little dramatic is how it reads, but the truth is that the shooting disappointment at Rio will take some time to shrug off.
A nation that had grown up to see all its Olympians return emtpty handed Olympic after Olympic, had suddenly started dreaming of medals, thanks to this one day, out of the blue when an armyman, in his first Olympics, had surprised everyone to clinch a silver at Athens 2004.
He inspired a diligent and disciplined shooter, smarting under his own little heartbreak, to corner glory and gold four years later at Beijing. That started a story that seems to have met its sad end in Rio.
Thanks to the laurels of Rathore, Bindra, Vijay Kumar and Narang, shooting had risen up the charts, to feature in the top five of the most followed sports in the country in a matter of a decade. But, what transpired in Rio over a painful period of nine days, might just prove to be that event that turns back the clock on shooting.
It’s a horrendous thought to deal with. The 12-member shooting contingent that travelled to Rio contained some of the best shooters, not only of the country but of the world.
But, after 9 days and 15 events, the number of medals in India’s kitty is equal to that number that India is credited with for giving to the world – zero.
That zero shouldn’t let anyone believe that they performed pathetically, even if the showing was far from the expectations. For most of them, it proved to be a case of so near yet so far as they looked set in pursuit of a place in finals, or in Bindra’s case a medal.
Jitu Rai was the first one to fall prey to the curse that seemed to have stalked the contingent throughout the event. After the first day saw Ayonika Paul and Apurvi Chandela fade away, not the least unexpectedly, all eyes were on Rai as India’s first realistic shot at a medal.
It was hoped that the Naib Subedar will open India’s account at the medal’s tally. The skilled marksman even had such a story that, it seemed, was waiting to be given finishing touches with a medal around the neck. Born in Nepal and growing vegetables in his farm at an early age, it was out of pure serendipity that he came to lead India’s hopes at Rio.
Rai made it to the finals of the 10m air pistol event in dramatic fashion, but once in the finals, he was surprisingly nowhere close to his best and slipped out of medal contention right at the beginning. The shooter can be given credit for making it to the finals of his event in his first Olympics, but that should never be enough for a top-ranked shooter.
Next in the line was 2012 Bronze medalist Gagan Narang. The 33-year-old Narang took the stage with his compatriot Abinav Bindra in the 10m air rifle and started on a dream note and cruised ahead of Bindra and others in a flash. But the finishing, that has so often eluded him in Olympics, eluded him again as his last round saw him shoot a miserable looking 102.1 and out went the hopes of an encore for Narang, as he missed out a place in the finals.
The other Indian, Abhinav Bindra, shooting for one last time, made it to the finals for the third time in 5 Olympics and, for the most part, looked like a dream ending often seen in the movies. Destiny had other plans and once again it was towards the end that Bindra moved out of medal reckoning with the slightest of margins.
Narang, thanks to his strategy of participating in all rifle events, was up again, carrying the country’s medal hopes on his broad shoulders, in the 50m Rifle Prone event. An almost identical script panned out in the qualifiers - having spent most of his time in the top 8, Narang’s last four shots pushed him down to 13th position.
With Narang’s dream almost over, Mairaj Ahmad Khan reignited them for a brief while in skeet qualifiers. By the end of his 4th round - where he had managed a perfect score of 25, the scorecard assured Mairaj of a place in the semis, if he could replicate the same performance in the last round.
But once again the last hurdle proved to be the most difficult to cross for the shooter, and with a score of 23, all he could do was to tie himself with 5 others in a shoot off scenario, from where he eventually got knocked out.
It has been excruciating to see the best shooters of the country blow it up all after having given themselves the best shot. In patches, they looked the best of the lot, but in the moments where it mattered the most, they couldn’t keep their calm. The Rio experience may as well go down as one where we learn the importance of holding on to a position of strength and let not nerves steal the glory away.
There is no doubt that the added pressure of being in the limelight that they are usually not, had some role to play in the shooters’ downfall. There is no other explanation, as these are the same shooters who have won laurels against the same opponents in world events, when the spotlight was away from them.
Now that the Rio dream is over, some serious introspection is expected to follow. National Rifle Association of India Chief Raninder Singh hinted at some systemic problems that will now come into focus. Maybe, that’s the only positive takeaway from the Rio failure, for a single medal in shooting would have led us to believe that all is hunky-dory within the association and the faults would have been conveniently papered over.
Now at least, the status quo is expected to change and maybe some heads are expected to roll. The shooters till then will need to put behind the heartbreaks of Rio and develop nerves of steel to succeed Tokyo 2020.