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Indian shooters off target, association chief takes aim at coaches, infighting

On a day when the shooters were reasonably confident of winning at least one medal but ended with none, National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) president Raninder Singh took aim at the coaching staff and pointed to why India missed the target by such a wide margin.

India's Manu Bhaker and Saurabh Chaudhary during the 10m Air Pistol Mixed Team shooting event, at the Summer Olympics 2020 (PTI Photo)

On Tuesday morning, a storm that swirled towards Japan finally ended up skirting Tokyo. But at the Olympics, the Indian shooting camp found itself at the centre of a different storm of its own. On a day when the shooters were reasonably confident of winning at least one medal but ended with none, National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) president Raninder Singh took aim at the coaching staff and pointed to why India missed the target by such a wide margin.

He said there would be an overhaul of coaching staff, highlighted the internal wrangling within the team and warned that no one was indispensable — even himself, although he cheekily added that he felt “less responsible” for the below-par performances.

“We are going to see an overhaul of the Indian coaching staff for sure. Everybody will be evaluated… You think it is only the athlete who will be evaluated? Even I will be evaluated as president of the NRAI. No one is indispensable,” Singh said after another medal-less day for India at shooting.

“I am consciously aware that I have done everything that is humanly possible. That’s why I feel a little less responsible this time. But, it’s my team,” he said.

The timing of these remarks was intriguing, though. The NRAI chief was speaking moments after the 10m air pistol qualifying round, where the pairing of Manu Bhaker and Saurabh Chaudhary made a tepid exit, and just when the two rifle teams were about to begin their match. Besides, India’s shooting campaign was yet to conclude. Anjum Moudgil, Tejaswini Sawant, Sanjeev Rajput and Aishwary Pratap Tomar are still to shoot.

Singh issued a clarification later, saying “post-mortems can wait till after the Games”, but his comments exposed the pressure-cooker situation within the shooting team.

The NRAI chief claimed that internal wrangling within the team, especially among coaches of the pistol team, might have impacted the performances. He also spoke about “issues” between Bhaker and her former coach Jaspal Rana, a former world and Asian champion.

“There was just one person who was the negative factor in the whole thing (wrangling within the team). I am referring to Jaspal Rana. Before the tour to Croatia (where the team moved in May)… (there was) a lot of internal wrangling in the pistol squad among coaches. That was addressed to all by me in person in an eight-page letter I wrote prior to the team leaving for Croatia,” Singh said.

He said that after issues cropped up between Bhaker, one of India’s top pistol shooters, and her coach Rana, he tried to mediate. “I got Manu’s family together with Jaspal but they did not get on. It’s not just Jaspal, the other side also was not willing to work with him because of various instances that they cited. The girl said something, the family said something, and Jaspal, in his defence, said something,” he said.

He insisted that India’s debacle at the Olympics was not “Jaspal’s fault” but the incident between the two “might have had an impact on Manu to some extent”. Bhaker was chosen for three events — 10m air pistol, 10m mixed team and 25m pistol. “For reasons best known to him and the athlete concerned, they are unable to work together and well, this is not China we live in. I cannot dictate,” Raninder said.

Incidentally, China won both gold medals on offer Tuesday and a total of three in total so far.

India’s lofty medal estimates — the government and the Indian Olympic Association predicted a double-digit haul — relied heavily on the shooting team delivering between four to six medals. This assumption was based on their dominance through late 2018 and entire 2019, when Indians shattered world records, climbed to the top of the ranking charts and capped it off with a record 15 Olympic quotas.

But then, this was the first Olympics for India’s teenage shooting brigade — and a first multi-discipline experience for some. So, when the main show began in Tokyo, Chaudhary was the only one to qualify for a final. And now, they are staring at the possibility of returning empty-handed from back-to-back Olympic campaigns.

The NRAI chief has stormed in and out of the Asaka Shooting Ranges after every Indian miss. World number two rifle shooter Divyansh Panwar was left shaken with his 32nd place finish in 10m air rifle. After another underwhelming finish Tuesday, he sat motionless, and was consoled by teammate Elavenil Valarivan.

Bhaker, otherwise confident and articulate, was at a loss of words and choked while talking about her performance. Chaudhary, whose childhood coach Amit Sheoran jokingly said that he utters only “24 words in 24 hours”, used half of his daily quota in one go.

“There’s nothing different about the Olympics,” said Chaudhary, curtly. “Wahi range hai, target hai, pistol hai, goli hai, hum hai. Alag kya hoga (It’s the same range, target, pistol, pellet, and us. What’s so different)?” he asked. Well, the result, for one.

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