Rio Olympics 2016: The future for Indian female shooters looks bright despite disappointing show
With Heena Sidhu bowing out of the qualifiers of the 25m pistol event on Tuesday, the final hope of an Indian woman winning her first Olympic medal in shooting vanished. The shooter, who had earlier failed to make it to the finals of 10m pistol event, met a similar disappointment in her second and final event and finished 18th. Sidhu was the eldest of the trio of women shooters who travelled to Rio with lots of hopes but will return empty handed. The two other shooters Ayonika Paul and Apurvi Chandela also flattered to deceive and bowed out of 10m air rifle event that took place on the first day of the Olympics in Rio.
The Indian women shooting performance in this year’s Olympics is reflected that a lot of things are a work in progress. While none of them ever looked in contention of making it to the finals, let alone a medal. Paul, who had been one of the athletes supported by Olympic Gold Quest and had a Commonwealth Silver to her name before Rio, is really young and is going to surely learn from the experience in Rio de Janeiro and so will Chandela, the Gold medalist of Glasgow Commonwealth Games.
After three Olympics where India have consistently got medals in shooting, albeit courtesy the men, the expectations were naturally high from the shooting contingent. And Paul, Sindhu and Chandela had attracted the attention with their feats in shooting over the last two years. Heena Sidhu found herself on the front page of newspapers in April 2014 when she climbed up to number one in world rankings in Pistol shooting. And both Chandela and Paul had won themselves credentials by their good showing in Commonwealth Games. However, big stage fright, which is an obvious when it comes to the Olympics, accounted for all of them.
The training and the discipline notwithstanding, the mental toughness of the shooters certainly need improvement after the disappointing performances in Rio. Former world number 1 Sidhu shot 384 in 10m Air Pistol, a score that she has passed on more than a dozen occasions otherwise. Similarly, Chandela also revealed how her mind went blank during her 10m air rifle event. These cases explain how humungous the pressure is on the athletes when they take aim in an Olympic event.
These same shooters delivered the goods when they shot in the World Championships or a relatively less followed event like the Commonwealth Games. Anjali Bhagwat met a similar fate in Athens 2004 when she couldn’t make good on her fantastic run of form ahead of the event that had catapulted her to one of India’s biggest medal hopes and eventually succumbed to pressure to fail to qualify in either of her air rifle events.
To be fair to the shooters, medal hopes on the three women were a little misplaced as well. The best bet among the three was Heena Sidhu as the 26 year old had already experienced an Olympic before and had a Gold medal in World Cup under her belt. The problem with the pre Olympics projection is that out of a sense of patriotism and more out of hope, an athlete is labeled as a medal contender without her current form being taken into account. The same proved to be the case with Sidhu.
After her 2014 high of Number 1 in world rankings, Sidhu’s form had tapered off in the last year or so. The Ludhiana born girl had even struggled to secure the Olympic quota that based on her past performances, everyone thought to be hers anyway. Ayonika Paul and Apurvi Chandela, with their experience, had at best an outside chance of grabbing a medal in the Games. But when you’re up against the best of the world on a stage as big as Olympics, outside chances more often than not don’t get converted into anything substantial.
Despite their not so amazing performances, hope still floats in the air for all the three shooters have age on their side and are too good to fade into the oblivion in 4 years when the next Olympics come calling in 2020. Ayonika Paul has already made it clear that she has put the Rio debacle behind her and will start training her guns at a medal in Tokyo. Heena Sidhu is one of the best shooters of the country and can never be discounted despite her recent dip in the form.
Moreover, even if these women haven’t been able to manage a Bindra-esque feat that will inspire an entire generation to take up shooting, the limelight they’ve enjoyed over the past six months is sure to make many of the gender to consider the sport. The good news for India is that the shooting reserves are not empty and a number of bright talents like Mampi Das and Rahi Sarnobot have come up over the years. The challenge in front of the authorities is to make them consistent performers by providing them with the best of technical and mental facilities.
As a nation, we also have a job at our hands. When we become a population who switch on the television to watch women’s shooting only once in four years, it results in the shooters experiencing the burden of expectations only once in 4 years and that too on the grandest stage of them all. These brilliant talents have to be exposed to more such pressure so that they become accustomed to it and when the big Games come calling, they take it as just another event.
As for Rio Olympics 2016, it is over for Indian women shooters. This disappointing show at Rio will give many a much needed reality check and probably add to the understanding that more than some areas need plumbing before we expect our shooters to bring home medals. As a nation that thrives on hope and second chances, we can all but hope that it proves to be that low for one of the three shooters of which they talk about as the motivation that spurred them to a medal when they win one in next Olympics.