Indian shooters' internal competition for Tokyo spots was on display at World Cup

The shooting World Cup in Delhi brought out the fierce competition among Indians

SHOOTING-IND-HEALTH-VIRUS Eyeing glory: Divyansh Singh Panwar takes aim in an apartment in Faridabad that was converted into a practice range | AFP

Fifteen gold, nine silver and six bronze medals. India had its best-ever medal haul in an ISSF Shooting World Cup, topping the table at the New Delhi event that concluded on March 28. The USA, with four gold, three silver and one bronze medals, came a distant second. The performance put a big smile on the face of Raninder Singh, president of National Rifle Association of India (NRAI). But several of his shooters were not as happy, because their Tokyo Olympics dreams had hinged on this competition.

“This World Cup was the first competitive analysis we had at our disposal since the Covid lockdown.” —Raninder Singh, president, National Rifle Association of India
“You need to surround athletes with limited people. Decide who will go to Tokyo, now.” —Abhinav Bindra, on finalising support staff

For all the 294 shooters from 53 countries, this World Cup was crucial. It was the first international outing for rifle and pistol shooters during the pandemic, and the second for shotgun shooters, following the ISSF World Cup in Cairo in February. There were important ranking points to garner, too. Those who are in the top ten and have not yet got a quota for the Olympics will be awarded world ranking quota places in June, as per the ISSF’s new Covid-adjusted rules.

The line-up in Delhi was not the best as top shooters from powerhouses like China, Japan and Russia gave the event a miss. Nevertheless, it was still a much-needed event for them, perhaps even the only international event before the Olympics. Baku is scheduled to host one more World Cup in June, but there is uncertainty over it.

“This World Cup was the first competitive analysis we had at our disposal since the Covid lockdown,” Singh told THE WEEK. “I do intend to send our team to European championships to shoot MQS (minimum qualification score). There is the Baku World Cup too. But I cannot wait till then [to decide the Olympic team].” Before the tournament started, the NRAI had even spoken of the possibility of holding bilateral “unofficial” competitions to get the Indian shooters ready but as the World Cup unfolded, Singh felt bilaterals may not be required.

The results in the World Cup helped Indian shooters shake off their rustiness, but scores in most events were way below the best scores in the World Cups prior to the lockdown. “I want to close [the selection] now so that they can get on with their preparation. It is already too late,” said Singh.

The NRAI will also announce two reserves per event, in case any of them falls ill before the Olympics. Singh further added: “You may be the best in the world, but you will be rusty if you do not have regular international exposure. Whatever shortcomings coaches have seen or the technical issues the athletes have, they will be sorted.”

The pandemic broke the momentum of Indian shooters who were Tokyo bound as they were at their peak performance levels before the lockdown. It was tough as being restricted indoors for months meant only physical training and dry practice indoors. Divyansh Singh Panwar, the world number two in men’s 10m air rifle, had emptied out two bedrooms and the lobby of an apartment in Faridabad—all adjacent to each other—to get a clear 10m shot at a makeshift target. The 18-year-old won the bronze medal at the Delhi World Cup after a slow start.

Terrific trio: Manu Bhaker, Rahi Sarnobat and Chinki Yadav completed a clean sweep of the 25m pistol event at the Delhi world cup | Courtesy Nrai Terrific trio: Manu Bhaker, Rahi Sarnobat and Chinki Yadav completed a clean sweep of the 25m pistol event at the Delhi world cup | Courtesy Nrai

“I had forgotten what a competition was like,” said Panwar of his performance. “When I started, I was nervous and my heart was racing. During the lockdown, everything had stopped. I had no idea when things would restart. I had forgotten how to shoot.” Every time he thought he needed help, he would look at his coach Oleg Mikhailov for guidance and reassurance. “I maintained eye contact with him. He would tell me what to do. I was blank at times. I cannot handle it if one shot goes bad,” said Panwar. He also grew a few inches in the last year and worked on his posture. Divyansh paired with the world number one in women’s 10m air rifle, Elavenil Valarivan, to win the gold in the 10m air rifle mixed event.

Given the restrictions likely to be imposed at the Tokyo Olympics, the support staff needs to be finalised, too. In India, issues related to which coach would accompany players often crop up. Beijing Olympics gold medallist Abhinav Bindra told THE WEEK: “You need to surround athletes with limited people. Decide who will go to Tokyo, now. This plays an important role going into the Games. Not only does it avoid ambiguity, the athlete, too, is prepared and comes to terms with who he or she is training with. Tokyo will be very restricted.”

Team India had one of its best run-ups to an Olympics until Covid-19 struck. Indian shooters secured an unprecedented 15 quota places for the Olympics. They won 21 gold medals in the 2019 World Cup series—10 more than second-placed China.

At the home event this time, the NRAI and its selectors had a problem of plenty in a few rifle and pistol events.

Even though Valarivan won the gold in the mixed team event with Panwar, there was little joy for her in the individual event. India has already bagged the maximum two quota places available to a country in the women’s 10m air rifle, courtesy Apurvi Chandela and Anjum Moudgil’s performances at the ISSF World Championships in Changwon in 2018. However, the rise of Valarivan from the junior ranks to the senior level and her subsequent rise to the world number one spot made it tough for the selectors. At one point in 2019, the trio occupied the top three positions in world rankings.

Valarivan, 21, was reportedly given a chance to make a bid for her selection for Tokyo during the Delhi World Cup. However, she finished 12th in the qualifier. World number four and quota holder Moudgil was the lone Indian to qualify for the final; she finished fifth. Chandela finished twenty-sixth, struggling to find her rhythm and form.

Satisfied with the way the air rifle squads were shaping up, high performance coach of the team, Deepali Deshpande, said: “I am planning to ask the NRAI for one more domestic competition or trials. They need competition exposure. I have been watching all of them since October, when we restarted training. We saw some brilliant scores. Others are not yet there, they are in the process [of getting there].”

Deshpande also brushed aside concerns about Chandela’s dip in form. “Apurvi is where Anjum was a month ago,” she said. “There had been some technical issues with the equipment, [and so] calling her out of form is unfair. In rifle shooting, a shooter rarely goes out of form. So many things matter.”

Meanwhile in the pistol event, 25m pistol world number one Chinki Yadav won the gold medal to secure her berth for Tokyo. The toss-up was between her, Manu Bhaker and Rahi Sarnobat in this event. This was Yadav’s first World Cup medal. She held her nerve in the final to prevail 4-3 over Sarnobat. Bhaker won the bronze medal making it a clean sweep for India. Yadav, 23, is a protege of India’s finest pistol shooter, Jaspal Rana, who has coached her right from the junior level at the Madhya Pradesh Shooting Academy in Bhopal. She had already won her quota place in 2019.

When asked about the pressure of Tokyo selection and that of an international competition after a long break, Chinki says that everyone has match pressure. “I am not alone in feeling this,” she said. “With me, pressure is not about who you are competing with. What is important is how I have trained and how I should give my best.”

There is fierce internal competition in the women’s 10m air pistol team, too. Yashaswini Deswal of Haryana beat Bhaker in the final of the event this time. Both shot low scores in the final. Asked about the competition between teammates, Yashaswini said: “I was just trying to do my best. I had to focus on my temperament and technique. It was hard to do that. I am happy there were three of us in the final. Ultimately, the competition in shooting is with yourself.”

Pistol coach Smirnov Pavel has his hands full when it comes to the women’s team. Though most experts feel this internal competition is good as it keeps the shooters under pressure to deliver consistently, there are some who believe that such intensity between teammates is not always good. “The shooters are not relaxed enough to give good scores,” pointed one top coach who was watching the finals.

There were heartening performances from the likes of Aishwary Pratap Singh Tomar, the 20-year-old world number one in the men’s 50m rifle three positions event. He won the gold medal in New Delhi. Seasoned shooters Sanjeev Rajput and former world champion Tejaswini Sawant, both quota holders, paired up to win the gold medal in the 50m rifle 3P mixed team event. Tomar and Sunidhi Chauhan won the bronze.

Raninder Singh stressed that the selection of the Tokyo squad would be based only on merit. “The interest of the nation would be foremost when fielding the best shooters in each event,” he said.