Shooters always insist theirs is a sport where scores, more than medals, signify form. The perpetual quest for getting as close as possible to the perfect score of 10.9, and doing it repeatedly, gives them a bigger high than merely standing on the highest level of the podium.
Going by that assumption, one wonders if, beneath those perennially calm exterior, they go through a few anxious moments. Not just because the World Cup in Changwon, which concluded on Sunday, provided a reality check after the usual post Commonwealth Games hype, but more since some of the scores they’d shot have been so low that they wouldn’t even qualify for a national-level final.
Take Jitu Rai, for instance. The unwavering marksman shot a total of 570 in the qualifying round of the 10m air pistol at Gold Coast. At the National Championship, this score would’ve fetched him a 48th-place finish. But at the CWG, he comfortably qualified for the eight-man final and even won the gold. At the World Cup last week, Rai shot marginally better than the CWG but in a world-class field, his score of 574 was good enough only to finish 38th in a 88-man field.
For Rai, the World Cup was more of an extension of a poor run he has endured since the Rio Olympics but the Gold Coast glitter has faded rather quickly for the other 26 medal winners too. None of the podium finishers from the CWG could repeat their performance at the World Cup, which served as a harsh reality check before a crucial second-half of the year, when the Tokyo Olympics qualification events will get underway.
For wunderkinds Manu Bhaker and Anish Bhanwala, it was an initiation to the pressures of shooting in a high-quality field while for the rest, it was a reminder of what facing heavyweights is really like after cherry-picking medals at the last two events, including the rather low-key World Cup in Mexico. That event, like the CWG, was bereft of top shooters, most of whom returned to action last week after spending the first four months of the year in hibernation.
The National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) isn’t panicking, yet. Its president Raninder Singh, still active on the domestic circuit, attributes the Changwon performance to fatigue after a hectic start to the season. “The scores were pretty high and we had five finalists,” Raninder says. “I think that’s a credible performance given that its been a very busy start to the season.”
Two of India’s best performers, Shahzar Rizvi and Rahi Sarnobat were not in the CWG squad. Pistol shooter Rizvi was the only one to win a medal, a silver, while veteran Rahi bettered the national record in 25m sports pistol with a total of 588, a truly high-class score. Bhaker and Om Prakash Mitharval scored a world record 778 points in the 10m air pistol mixed team event while Ravi Kumar’s score of 629 in 10m air rifle qualification round, too, was a credible effort. He was among the few who came close to winning a medal but in a high-pressure scenario, Kumar fumbled.
But these were among the handful of positives. Most others struggled to match up, and with the competition likely to get even more intense in the coming months, the Indians have their task cut out. Rai, who has led the hopes of the contingent wherever they have competed in the last four years, is showing that he is human after all. Since Rio Olympics, he has recorded a score of 580-plus – minimum benchmark for a good tally – just once in an international tournament (581, Munich World Cup 2017) in the 10m air pistol. He’s laboured through the qualifying rounds with mediocre totals, which explains the lack of medals in the last two years.
Ronak Pandit, the team’s high performance director, says Rai’s poor form is mainly because he has been over-worked since 2014. “He hasn’t taken a break. He is either competing or training. He needs to take his mind off shooting, spend some time with his family and come back refreshed,” Pandit says.
Rai’s condition is symptomatic of a wider problem that the Indian team faces—that of proper planning to peak at the right time. Like Rai, Heena Sidhu, who won gold in 25m pistol at CWG, has been suffering similar problems of low scores and burnout. Pandit insists her situation isn’t as dire as Rai’s as far as workload is concerned, but a string of low scores remains a matter of concern. For instance, Sidhu’s total of 579 in the 25m pistol at Gold Coast was three less than the qualification mark for the final at Changwon, where she shot an even lower 574 to finish 37th. Her challenge is doubled because of the change in qualification rules.
Starting this year, the number of shots in the qualifying rounds of the 10m rifle and pistol events for women have been increased for 40 to 60. That has increased the duration of the qualifiers but the rest time before the final is the same, leaving little time to recover. While the revised format has seen several world records been set in Changwon, it’s taken time for the shooters to get used to it.
Amidst changing format and burnt out shooters, the NRAI has decided that they’ll not send the rifle and pistol teams to the World Cup in USA that starts next week. Instead, the shooters will be given a five-day break and will reassemble for a two-week camp in Delhi before leaving for the Munich World Cup.
“They needed a proper break. We sent the team to Changwon so that they could get a feel of the range, since it will also host the World Championship (in September). That is a very important tournament since it’ll be the first Olympic qualifying event. Between now and then, we have to plan smartly so that the shooters remain fresh,” Raninder says. “As far as the performance in Changwon goes, I am not overtly concerned. The medals may not have come, but the scores were really good.”
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