In terms of changes to the sport, 3 men’s Tokyo Olympic events 50m Rifle prone, 50m Pistol were replaced with 3 mixed team events in order to attain gender equality. The number of shots being shot in women’s events was increased to bring them on par with the men. These changes were seen negatively from an Indian perspective, primarily because India had relatively good performances in the removed events.
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The Rio blanking being viewed with shock and horror, the NRAI formed a committee led by the recently retired Abhinav Bindra to investigate what went wrong and suggest changes for the future. Among many other recommendations, one of the major suggestions of this committee was to strengthen the junior program, and it has borne tremendous fruit faster than anyone would have ever imagined.
Many may like to believe that India’s success this year came through a process of slow and steady evolution, but the numbers show that in reality, Indian shooters just took a giant 19-kilo wrecking ball and shattered the glass ceiling. The year saw a total of 19 Golds at ISSF events in Olympic disciplines, more than the past 9 years combined!! In fact, in rifle/pistol events, India topped the medals tally at each of the 4 World Cups as well as the World Cup Final. And all of this happened in a year when all the World Cups offered Olympic 2020 Games quotas.
The highlights of 2019 included Abhishek Verma and Saurabh Chaudhary sweeping the 10m Air Pistol event at the World Cups with 2 Golds each, with Saurabh even making World records in the process. Apurvi Chandela and Elavenil Valarivan combined to win Golds at 4 of the 5 World Cup events as they, along with Anjum Moudgil, created a unique Indian 1-2-3 on the World Rankings.
Yashaswini Deswal overcame two heart-breaking World Cups in Beijing and Munich to secure the Gold at the Rio World Cup, while Manu Bhaker and Divyansh Panwar both laid their hands on the yellow metal in the World Cup Final. It was thus fitting that at the World Cup Final, where mixed team events were contested between international teams formed by a random draw as opposed to national teams, both Saurabh Chaudhary and Manu Bhaker still reached the Gold Medal match with their respective partners and competed against each other.
Sanjeev Rajput showed he still had a lot left in him with a Silver at the Rio World Cup. However, stalwarts like Gagan Narang, Jitu Rai, and Heena Sidhu all eventually lost their places in the national team, and slowly reduced their participation in competitive events despite neither of them officially retiring. While the rifle and pistol shooters have reached unimaginable heights, a shotgun has unfortunately been a major let down. Indian shotgun shooters have failed to win a single medal at an ISSF event in an Olympic 2020 Games discipline throughout the current Tokyo Olympic cycle.
One of the possible reasons for this is that rifle and pistol, especially at the rural level, have far fewer barriers to entry for youngsters. It is reasonably easier to set up a 10m rifle/pistol range in a village, than it is to set-up a large and secure shotgun range, besides the guns and ammunition also being cheaper. As a result, youngsters have tended to gravitate towards rifle and pistol, as opposed to a shotgun. Further, trap events have also been hit due to the absence of a foreign coach. These issues would be at the forefront for NRAI as we move into the Tokyo Olympic.
In terms of Tokyo Olympic, after the Rio debacle, there is a feeling among many fans that Indian shooters often do well in ISSF events only to falter at the big stage that is the Olympic 2020 Games. However, looking at the numbers, this is decidedly not true.
In 2019, Indian shooting has shown astronomical numbers that are on a completely different plane from ever before. The comparison of the Tokyo Olympic chances of the current lot with those of the past is an exercise in futility. The growth can also be seen at the domestic level, with the number of shooters appearing for the national championships increasing every year, has now reached into the thousands.
While the Tokyo Olympic is still about 7 months away, many of our shooters will go into Tokyo as strong medal favorites, and the contingent would be highly disappointed to not return with our best ever medal haul, both in terms of number and color. And, hopefully, a successful would pave the way for a new decade in which Indian shooting would not just be aiming for 1-2 medals every Olympic 2020 Games, but would actually be looking to be at the top of the shooting medals tally.