The hapless Indian Meteorological Department – which cops criticism for unreliable weather forecasts after every truant monsoon — sits a little over 10 kms away from Pune’s Balewadi Shooting Ranges. The joke among pistol shooters at Balewadi is that there is no need for the IMD to bring out the barometres or rain gauges, wind vanes or Doppler radars this time of December when the caravan of Senior Nationals is camped in town. No need to watch for peacocks dancing at NDA or hear the Jacobin cuckoo herald the arrival of clouds along Pashan.
“Just announce a free Pistol competition and the weather will invariably turn bad on that day!” guffaws 50m pistol doyen Samresh Jung. To mutilate Paulo Coelho’s oft quoted line, when you really don’t want the clouds and winds to gate-crash a perfect day of pistol shooting, all the universe conspires in helping the elements wreck it. “You could arrive at the range whistling away on a bright, sunny day. But by the time you start to shoot, it’ll be cloudy, windy, dull, with shadows on the target,” Jung says with a devilish cackle.
Like an ancient DD weather announcer, he drones on: “Your judgments will go wrong, confidence will precipitate and scores will be awful.” Misery of a free pistol practitioner, told with much glee that brushes off many occasions when the evil elements ruined Jung’s own chances at a medal.
That unfortunate equation: cold, biting winds winding up as bad scores, played out most notoriously and recently at the Rio Games when India’s biggest hope Jitu Rai, with a two-year-run of promising results, shot a disastrous 7 when needing 9 to make the Olympics finals of 50m free pistol. Four months after that stray 7 – it happened moments after he thought he had negotiated the wild winds at Rio’s Deodoro — shooting at the Senior Nationals in Pune, Jitu Rai gave a wry smile when Wednesday Finals Day brought with it sickly humidity and overcast clouds with the targets darkening mid-match. He would top his qualification detail, and line up for the Finals declaring his intent to tame the worst that nature could throw at the eight battling finalists.
Not free of doubt
A sword hangs over free Pistol – shooting’s governing body ISSF is considering doing away with the 50m classical event replacing the century long Olympic staple with a mixed air pistol team tango. But such is the magical pull of every single of the 60 competition shots in qualifying and 20 in finals, that a goodly crowd turned up to watch Jitu take on the best of the rest of the free Pistol field and his old nemesis – the whimsical winds that set the limp-like flags aflutter in a fiendish hat-tip to Rio when the circular mini typhoon mocked at Rai’s core skills in his pet event and he never made the finals.
There’s a lifetime to nurse that regret – and shooters are a brooding lot, never mind Jitu’s sunny disposition. But this isn’t about redemption at Tokyo, which may never come if 50m gets dumped out of the Olympics. Free pistol, as the pickled veterans and callus hardened specialists will tell you, is always and only about the next shot. “Every shot is equivalent to a series and you can’t plan too far ahead. A hundred variables can change between one shot and next,” Jung explains. The first time he missed the Olympic quota, he had 5 excellent shots followed by 5 horrendous ones. The next time, he missed his berth by a fraction. “It’s not a controlled environment like in air pistol (10metre, indoor) because every venue is different, and there can be 10 different conditions even on the same range on different days,” says the man who was in magical touch at the 2006 Commonwealth Games earning the nickname Goldfinger when he raided Melbourne’s Fort Knox for eight medals. It’s why hundreds across the world dig this challenge. It’s not just about the medal; it’s about taming the worst that nature throws at you.
Free pistol’s star-cast isn’t just the troika of man, weapon and target with elements thrown in for drama. It spans an hour and 30 minutes for the 60 shots and time often plays tricks. If you can control free pistol, you can control any other event, it is said.
A 50m shooter takes in everything around him — gauges the wind, looks out for the shadows on targets, adjusts to optical changes, glances at the near flags and the far flags, one might be flickering, the other gusting away. All of which could change from one shot to next. There is even a military range in Atlanta with a sloping depression roughly at the mid-point, where free pistol shooters find the bullet dipping in its flight as gravity comes into play. Doha too has a wicked slope along the 50m field that needs to be mentally factored in while aiming at the target. Moisture, oxygen, gravity – nothing spares the free pistol shooters.
It’s commonly called pistol’s marathon, though there’s high hurdles and steeplechase thrown in with the tactical demands of an 800-race. It’s shooting’s equivalent of Test match cricket. You could even break for a cup of tea in the time allotted, they joke. And men actually win medals with one hand casually in the trouser pocket (it’s more for stability in the side-on stance than an attempt at looking the cool cat, though most free pistol shooters do carry that serene vibe). Spread over an outdoor range, you might even catch a butterfly fluttering low over dried grass while bullets whiz above them invisibly. Every shot, though, has potential for outstanding drama.
In times of breathless sport, you can watch in stilled time, every breath a free pistol shooter exhales, and every sigh after a botched shot, every twitch of the face and all the accumulated exertion emanating from those wrap-around grips — hands sliding into bespoke pistol handles. There’s muttering and some deep ruminations — as the effort behind those robotic decimal scores gets humanised. On a cold winter’s morning, the noise isn’t too different from Diwali dawn crackers going off in the distance.
Unlike archery where one camera zooms in on the cheek that balances the bow string and another follows the flight path of the arrow, shooting cameras can’t yet capture the flying bullet (50m free pistol) or the flying pellet (10m air pistol), and broadcasters haven’t figured out a way to jazz up the special effects like in Rajni films.
“All sports personalities are being turned into monkeys,” veteran free pistol shooter Ashok Pandit says crankily. “Everything is decided by TV or media rights. It’s very sad that the base of pistol shooting might go out of Olympics. Free pistol is the pursuit of the perfect shot battling elements — you can take your own time but execute the perfect shot,” he rattles away. That struggle imprinted on the face makes for great TV drama – albeit of silent intensity and not the noisy ‘monkey dancing’ that Pandit abhors. It’s essentially like watching MasterChef – if you got rid of the time constraints – and the magic of a slow cook took over.
Felt like demonetised
Time’s what it has run out of, though. Free pistol will be ‘demonetised’, a regular international says with a hoot of a convulsing laughter. ‘50 gone to 0 at the speed of a (Rs) 500’ he attempts a tame joke to ease his pain. As many as 600 entries of the 4200 at the Nationals this year came from rifle prone, and 420 for free pistol — both facing eviction from the Olympics programme. One theory is that like centre fire pistol – where Jaspal Rana was king, free pistol too will go out because it’s usually the Asians dominating the event while Europeans prefer the 25m rapid fire and air and the lobbying will lob out careers of thousands of 50m specialists.
10m air pistol has survived the cull even if it lasts 75 minutes, just a quarter hour less than Free pistol and the gender-balance sought by the athletes commission that made the recommendations, has chosen to add a pairs medal, instead of adding to the events for women. ‘Mardonwala event free pistol is,” a longstanding official says, and just as you are about to reconcile to the decision that a restrictive event ought to go out the window, he says, “all the more reason why women should compete in free pistol.”
It’s physically and mentally draining but women used to shoot it 100 years ago, and there’s no reason they won’t be able to take up the intellectual challenge. “Free pistol demands deft application, so let’s give women a new event where they’ll be required to use their brains. With a paired event in air pistol, there’s no new challenge for women, just another token addition of medal in an event they’re anyways shooting. Let’s add women to Free pistol instead, if we want to raise the bar and strike parity,” urges Rio Olympian Prakash Nanjappa.
It would be myopic to see the development simply as a loss of a future medal for India because of Jitu Rai. Free pistol seems to evoke deep loyalty among its specialists. “It’s my addiction, it’s like a drug, shooting this event. My first and only love in shooting. I’ve shot all five pistol events in my 15 year career, but even if I have more medals in Air Pistol I spend 80 percent of my time in Free. It’s the soul of shooting,” wheezes international Omkar Singh breathlessly.
He’s slightly scandalised by the news even. “Free pistol can’t come and go from Olympics, it’s been there for over 100 years and our ancestors believed this was the base sport like athletics or swimming,” he adds. By ancestors, he means gun-bearing forebears, though it’s his admiration for the contemporary great Jong Oh Jin that makes him wonder what brought this on. “In his final at Beijing Games he shot a 6 and went down from third to seventh and recovered to win gold by shooting eight 10s in last 10 shots. At London he took gold again climbing from seventh place. Who says there’s no drama for spectators in 50m pistol?”
It has stumped many that the Korean approved of the event going out of the Games since he is a three-time free pistol Olympic champ and sits on the Athletes Committee. It was at Granada in the 2014 Worlds where Jitu Rai had raised hopes of an Olympic medal two years ago, taking silver behind Jong. “It’s a slow event and every shot is a challenge. What you are thinking is how you shoot, it’s transparent,” Jitu says, hoping free pistol stays on for Tokyo. “Kya batau, ek baar woh feeling pakad liya, toh mast lagta hai free pistol,” he says of what must be a shooter’s elusive sweet spot. Prakash Nanjappa elaborates: “In free pistol the follow-through gives you the most joy. After the shot is released, a shooter stays a few seconds with the recoil. The target is 50 metres away, but you intuitively know,” he explains.
The Indian free pistol shooters are thick friends and even with the 50m ship sinking, have kept their humour intact. The camaraderie is visible in their unique jargon developed to poke fun at a particularly low score. The core bunch comes from the Army, and uses clock positions to rib each other. 10 o’clock on the target is “dhakka shot”, a taunt to a shooter under pressure, 7 0’ is “Darr mein trigger ne jhatka maara”— trigger pulled too early and 6 o’ is triggering delayed.
“We carry guns but it’s not a contact sport so there’s never grudges,” says senior free pistol shooter Om Prakash, also of Army. At the Pune Nationals four seasons ago, he had topped qualification and then in fading light with the jury asking around if 6.30 pm was a decent start, been the only one to insist that the finals go through. “I thought it’ll be dark for everyone, and best to get done with it. They all jumped on me saying I had put in long hours of training in darkness secretly so had ‘darkness-confidence’. But in truth I’d realised everyone else was reluctant to shoot in the dark, so I just played on their fear and won the gold,” he chortles.
“We of course take each other’s case when someone shoots a 6 or 7. But we also whole heartedly appreciate a good score because we know what havoc weather can cause. There’s respect for anyone who can conquer conditions,” he says.
It’s an hour to the final in Pune, and the free pistol finalists are all huddled together as the sun starts downing, trading tales of a certain maverick shooter Vivek. From his propensity to getting bored in the last few shots to his mad ability to rustle up great scores with both his left and right hands to jinxing other shooters, stories are flowing thick and fast. The youngest Manjit Singh, at 25, sits a little apart from his seniors but is being regaled too. “I’ve shot alongside Army Olympians – Vijay Kumar, Chain Singh, Jitu Rai, OP Sir, at Mhow (Army Marksmanship Unit). We stay together, eat together, do PT together,” he says later, the big stage confidence rubbing off on the relative rookie.
A Hissar boy now with the Jat Regiment, Manjit used to be a kabaddi player and pehlwan in his village before he tried out for shooting after joining the Army. Winning the famous Young Blood Competition, he’s watched his seniors compete and developed conviction in his technique that helps negotiate vagaries of weather. He is hungry to win, and keen to prove he can beat the big boys.
The flags point to capricious winds and Jitu Rai who starts steady goes into the lead after the 9th shot. Announcer Kunwar Randhir Singh stokes the crowd into ruckusing and cat-calls, shrill whistles and some very candid advice is thrown at the shooters — all in accordance with where international shooting is headed. Manjit’s stalking Jitu and after 14 shots, only a difference of 1.7 remains with 6 aims to go, and three armymen in contention. Manjit begins to chomp into Jitu’s lead even as OP fades away, never recovering from a 7.5. Manjit brings out the Big Daddy 10.7 (Imagine an almost Bull’s eye with a one-handed weapon over 50 metres) to overtake Jitu.
As the cackling turns from cheers to jeers — crowds love it when their dinning leads to a score of a 7 or low 8 – Manjit stays steadfast with his technique. “Yes, thoughts of becoming champion and beating the great Jitu Rai crossed my mind, and the next shot was bad. But I told myself to not try any stunts in technique as I wanted the gold medal,” says the son of a farmer, later. His last two shots are 9.3 and 8.5 (Jitu shoots 8.5 and 8.2) as he becomes the newest free pistol national champion. “Free pistol is the biggest challenge in shooting. I beat Jitu Rai, but I beat the range too,” he says. And of course, bossed the conspiring universe. All he wants now – wants real bad – is a chance at the Olympics. The elements, unsurprisingly, have promptly lined up to conspire.
And you don’t need the IMD to tell you clouds tend to gather when Free pistol’s on.