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Misfiring Guns and Booming Loose Cannons: The Burden of Being an Indian Shooter in Tokyo

India’s vaunted shooting empire is crumbling every day the Tokyo Olympics goes by. And while a lack of medals is the straw that broke the camel’s back, much of this has to do with the coaches and administrators working the show. India’s talented youngsters have been put under a harsh spotlight even as those behind the scenes are backbiting and protecting their own interests.
Manu Bhaker at Tokyo Olympics

A forlorn Manu Bhaker after an equipment malfunction led to her missing out on the final of the women’s 10 metre air pistol event at the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday, July 25 (Pic: The Print, Twitter).

If mudslinging was a medal event at the Tokyo Olympics, we all know who would lock up the podium places. Gold, silver and bronze to India, won by the shooting coaches and officials. They have been at it, and been on the bullseye too, ever since the guns started misfiring and the medals — almost pre-destined we thought going by the hype that was built ahead of the Games — started slipping beyond the reach of the talented but yet-to-be seasoned youngsters on whose shoulders the castles were built.

The larger-than-life facade of Indian shooting — as an enterprise which has an athlete-centric, well-oiled, much-highlighted supply chain capable of churning out world beaters — lies in tatters outside the competition range of the Tokyo Olympics. Instead, the promise that was Indian shooting, has morphed into a huge pile of hard to degrade and digest stinky waste thanks to the muck thrown about. And, fluttering atop that pile are the bruised egos of the coaches and administrators running the association. Like ignominious flags which serve as a reminder to the world: How not to run an Olympic campaign.  

So where do India stand now, having lost most of the events that the shooters were favourites in? There is nothing wrong in being a pre-tournament favourite. The youngsters earned that tag with blazing performances in the build-up to the Games. This notion was fuelled by aspiration too, as well as hope, and was almost a reality till five days back. 

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Things have unravelled for various reasons, least of it the fault of the shooters. The problem lies elsewhere, beginning with the myth-building PR exercise that was the hallmark of the shooting team in the run-up to the Games. Hype is a tricky beast. It can, of course, get the athlete pumped up. It can, if not kept under check, bog him or her down too. The latter has happened, and judging by the deafening cacophony ahead of the Games, the honchos of the National Rifles Association of India (NRAI), and the support cast of the shooters have failed to shield their prized assets from this unwanted and easily avoidable pressure.

The guess is that Indian shooting valued myth building to athlete building. There goes the athlete centric notion out of the window.  They should have known that myths aren’t real, and when put under scrutiny of reality — in this case medals — they tend to crumble at some point. The expiry date of Indian shooting’s myth, woven after Abhinav Bindra won the historic gold at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, is almost upon us and the establishment is too caught up in their own little tussles and sense of grandeur to notice it.

Over the past few months, the NRAI’s attempt has been to present itself as a unit which strives hard to serve the shooters. But the behaviour of officials and some coaches at the Games venue suggest otherwise. While many hopes have come undone in Tokyo already, the behaviour of the officials may also bring about an unravelling of shooters yet to enter the fray. Because, talks of sacking, reopening of old controversies, and talking about and revisiting losses which should rightfully be banished before the next event, not just deflate the spirit of the contingent, but also weigh down heavily on the psyche of the individual shooter who is better served without such drama and turmoil around them.

It began when India’s biggest hope from the Games — Manu Bhaker and Saurabh Chaudhary — failed to make the podium in their individual competitions, the 10 metre air pistol event. While Chaudhary did feature in the final, and by all measure, made a good account of himself in his debut Olympics, Bhaker failed, with luck playing a part in it. A technical glitch in her pistol — the trigger circuit was fried — and the time spent repairing it, had a major role to play in the 19-year-old not making the final. 

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The logical thing for any professional sporting set-up to do post such a disappointment would be to move forward, quelling all discussions that arise harping on the ifs and if nots of the incident. 

That never happened. It has been five days since Bhaker’s gun misfired at the range, and we are still discussing it via counter arguments and social media explainer videos, the latest one was put out by none other than her coach, Ronak Pandit.

In the video, published on Tuesday, the coach, who took charge in March after Bhaker’s much-talked-about fallout with Jaspal Rana, was countering certain points made by the manufacturer whose gun Bhaker was using. Now, as a coach, shouldn’t Pandit be more concerned about his shooter, and how to best prepare her for her next event, the 25 metre pistol competition? Instead, he is busy pushing his case on social media, satiating among many things, his ego too. There is no other explanation to such behaviour and the NRAI should be pulling up the coach and disciplining him. Ideally, anyone mentoring or guiding a professional athlete should aim to stay away from controversies mid tournament, and focus on the original job at hand, which is to coach. Pandit seems to have forgotten that.

The irony is that the video explainer, itself, was self harming. In it, Pandit justifies the decision of Bhaker not using her spare gun when the malfunction surfaced. Setting the spare pistol up, including priming the sights, would have taken 10 minutes and would have saved Bhaker time and also kept her state of mind and heart rate in a reasonable condition to come back and start shooting well. Instead, it took more than 20 minutes for them to fix the gun. She narrowly missed the final slot, and that is testament to her quality. If only her coach was more attentive to his job. 

Pandit, in the video, says that the spare gun was not ready because it had a grip that Bhaker was not comfortable with. He slid in a snide dig at her former coach Rana too, saying the grip was placed at the insistence of Rana. 

Rana is in the past for Bhaker. As her coach now, it was Pandit’s job to ensure that the spare equipment she was supposed to have at her disposal was in a ready state. Attention to detail is key in sport, all the more in the elite level. This has been stated many times by Bindra as well, whose attention to detail was legendary. So, while blaming it on luck, Bhaker’s preparation had its chinks too, and as fate would have it, it was that weak point that got exposed. If only Pandit had shown the same diligence into preparing his athlete that he is displaying on social media. 

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The coach should ideally leave the chatter to the talking heads. Maybe to the NRAI chief Raninder Singh. Oops! No, not him!

Not after the knee-jerk statements he blurted out after Bhaker and Chaudhary failed in the 10 metre air pistol mixed team event. The NRAI chief said there would be an overhaul of the coaching staff once the Games are over, and also dug up some old skeletons in the process, neatly chronicling among many things the Bhaker-Rana tiff that escalated into them parting ways.

Of course, Bhaker leaving Rana — the coach that saw her rise to the top of the world — with just four months left for the Games would have had a bearing on the shooter’s performance in Tokyo. But, was the Games venue, with more events to follow — the right place and time for Raninder to blurt out the various egotistical dynamics that are at play in the Indian shooting team? These things should have been addressed much before, but since that has not happened, the best option was to wait for the events to get over, get back home, think, introspect, dissect, and then come out with a roadmap for the future.

Instead, he hung the mythical Damocles’ Sword over the coaching staff while many of them still have to go out and oversee the performance of the shooters. He also hinted at emotionally charged disruptive changes rather than well-thought-out long-term policy.

Timing matters in sport. Raninder should know better. His statements, Pandit’s social media exuberance, selective leaks from various quarters to the media have all but made the Indian shooting campaign in Tokyo a mess that may have a bearing on the sport beyond the scope of this edition of the Games. 

Such things will arrest and kill all the momentum gained in the past decade; it will also scar the current crop of promising athletes, who have a good 10 years or so of prime ahead of them. It will put them in a bad spot. Their first experience at the Games will be bitter, when all they would have dreamt of — they have all been talking about the Olympic dream — would have been to be in the moment, celebrate, shoot, and win if they can. The rest is not part of the bargain. Imagine the baggage they would carry forward. The impact of it all on their mental health would be immense too. 

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Mental health is a larger debate that’s happening across the world in elite sport. The latest happened at the Games on Tuesday when American star gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of the team competition citing inability to deal with the pressure. The USA side finished with a silver (the first time they didn’t win gold in the event since 2010) after Biles dropped out. But the larger talk in the US, and across the world, has not been about the loss, but about the well being of the athlete.

Biles is not the first athlete to come out and talk about this matter in recent times. She certainly won’t be the last either. It is indeed a pertinent issue. Looking at the way Indian athletes are managed, we can only cringe at the primitive outlook we have on matters of the mind.

Indian sport has always had to do the catch up act with the world. The reality is that we are years behind the rest no matter how much we would hype things to tell ourselves we are not. And as things stand, when the world is thinking about the holistic well being of athletes — mind, body and soul — stakeholders in India are doing their best to go the other way. That’s exactly what Indian shooting has done to a very talented bunch of athletes we have at our disposal. We can only hope the damage is not long lasting and wish our best for those who will feature at the Games in the coming few days. 

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