The words ‘shooting’ and ‘refugees’ are often linked together, but seldom in a positive context. Two Olympic gold medallists, however, have joined hands to change that.
Abhinav Bindra and Niccolo Campriani’s careers ended on the same day in 2016, but in a highly contrasting fashion. Bindra, with his last shot at the Olympic Games, missed podium finish by a heartbreakingly narrow margin.
Campriani’s farewell shot, in equally dramatic circumstances, fetched him an Olympic gold, the third of his stellar career.
Three years after that epic 10m air rifle final in Rio, they have reunited to nurture another Olympic dream. Campriani and Bindra have collaborated to help three refugees — Khaoula, Luna and Mahdi — qualify for the Tokyo Olympics next July.
Over the next one year, Campriani will mentor them to help them achieve a minimum qualifying score that will make them eligible for the Refugee Olympic Team, which made its debut at the Rio Games. The Italian legend is the face of the project, whose launch coincided with the 500 days countdown to the Games. Bindra, who has held two coaching sessions so far, will play a more behind-the-scenes role.
The five-time Olympian is helping by funding the initiative through his foundation, Campriani said. “I could put together all the equipment I needed through the donations, but I also needed some cash flow for other expenses. When I was exploring different options, I looked into the Abhinav Bindra Foundation. And then after talking to Abhinav and knowing the work he is doing in India, he proposed his help. That was the crucial part of the project,” Campriani (31) told The Indian Express from Bologna, where the refugee shooters competed in their first-ever tournament last weekend.
Campriani got the idea to train refugees at the Rio Olympics, where he met a few athletes of the 10-member team. “Also, as an Italian, migrant flow is a big topic. It’s on the first page of the newspaper everyday. People propose different solutions to the problem. Some of them are not really solutions. But their integration is the key. And what’s better than sport,” he said.
So, at the start of the year, Campriani reached out to the local immigration office in the canton of Vaud in Switzerland, where he now lives, and expressed the desire to take three refugees under his wing. For the next couple of months, he interviewed two-three candidates every Sunday.
“At the interviews, I was trying to get a sense of the person in front of me in terms of motivation, passion and the reason they were there. Based on this, I selected the three candidates,” said Campriani.
He is careful about sharing the trio’s background due to “security concerns”. Mahdi (22) was born in Afghanistan but grew up in Iran. Luna (25) is from an African country, while Khaoula (30) is from the Middle-East.
“It is very difficult for them. They have suffered a lot of things that they want to forget and have many, many layers. It takes time for them to open up,” Campriani said. The trio’s journey will be chronicled in an Olympic Channel series titled ‘Taking Refuge: Target Tokyo 2020’.
Help poured in from athletes across different countries — some sent a pair of gloves, others donated shooting hats, and a few federations invited them to compete in their domestic championships or train at their national camps.
Campriani said they are exploring the possibility of coming to India for a few sessions. “That’s the discussion I have had with Abhinav. It would make a lot of sense, considering the potential gold medalists you might have next year in Tokyo and Abhinav’s role in the project… So if there is a chance, we would love to,” he said.
It’s a journey of “self discovery”, he said, rather philosophically. Being with them has made him realise what “sport means in the context of life” while the three shooters explore the “depth of their emotions as well as competitive spirit”.
“One of the problems for an athlete is that we forget what sport is in the context of life. You go to an Olympic final and it feels like you are at war. It’s a life-or-death feeling. You are scared, emotions are so strong,” he said. “The problem is that, you can forget that at the end of the day, even an Olympic Games is just a sports competition.”
In the roughly 100 days since picking up the sport, the three men are already shooting decent scores. At the tournament in Bologna on Sunday, Khaoula’s first shot, in fact, was world-class — a perfect score of 10.9. Mahdi, meanwhile, shot a score of 599, which is more than the qualifying benchmark for the Olympics. He will, however, have to repeat the performance at this year’s Asian Championships in November or other international qualifying event to be eligible for Tokyo.
Campriani closely observed their reactions after every shot. He described them as ‘child-like’. “Very pure. When it’s excitement, it’s excitement. When it’s joy, it’s joy. At some point, I will talk about their deepest fears and expectations; about working a way around the pressure and tension of an Olympics,” he said.
But he is conscious of the fact that, unlike career sportsmen, Olympics is not the end-all for Mahdi, Luna and Khaoula. “For all of them, it is much more than getting to the Olympics. The type of message we are trying to send is different. In every single case, there is a strong intention of showing what a refugee can do,” he said. “It is more than feeling sorry for them. It is about believing in them, empowering them.”