Olympic athletes can suddenly be catapulted into the same nationwide appeal and affection held normally for a select band of cricket stars. The army colonel, who had served in Kargil during the 1999 war with Pakistan and had steadily proved his shooting prowess since joining the forces, had seen his career culminate.
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The country had sent a contingent of 73 athletes, with 57 of them competing in discrete sports as only the Indian hockey side played in a team sport. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore always had sports in his DNA. He played many of them as a kid and was later recognized as the best sportsman during his years at the Indian Military Academy.
The shooting was no surprise to Rathore, he had after all led a regiment in Kashmir. The sport shooting was a different game; it was more to do with ‘precision’ rather than ‘target’ as the silver medallist would later put.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore first picked up the gun for sport resolutions in 1998 when the Indian army decided to form a shooting team. It required intense attention and discipline – areas where his army officer training and constant will to succeed helped.
He was in enormous form coming into the 2004 Olympic as he had made it to the finals of every major championship in the past one and a half years. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore trained on his own until January 2004 after which he decided it was time for some expert guidance. He flew to Italy where he qualified under former world champion Luca Marini and ex-Olympic champion, Russell Mark, firing close to 80 shots a day.
In the months leading up to the Games, the army man ready a precise calendar of the events he would contribute in, the amount of time he would train and even the number of shots he should ideally fire in training every day. If this level of thoroughness was not enough, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore would also call up his wife Gayatri, who he had only seen for four months in the past two years, to discuss possible strategies and scenarios.
The work he had put in was immense and it was now time for the reward to materialize. India’s medal haul at Athens 2004 was a single silver medal for the army man in the double trap category but it was historic in many ways. It was the nation’s first individual silver – India had at best managed an individual bronze till then – and also its first Olympic medal in shooting.
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s quest did not begin well as he shot 135 out of 200 in the initial round but was placed fifth and so went finished. The then 28-year-old, nicknamed ‘Chilly’ by his mother, came into his own in the final yet. He hit his targets more often but UAE’s Shaikh Ahmed Al Maktoum, a member of Dubai’s ruling family who had taken up shooting only at 34, shot an incontrovertible lead and won gold to give his country its first-ever Olympic medal.
The pressure was still immense on Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore as he was competing with three other shooters for the silver and needed to hit both his flying clay targets in his last attempt. The colonel was deadly accurate with both his shots as he scored 179 out of 200 and raised his right arm in celebration but the significance of his feat would set in only much later as he inspired India to win shooting medals in both of the Tokyo Olympic.