Her intensity was visible; her intent to be on the plane to Rio de Janeiro, palpable. Shooter Ayonika Paul’s perseverance saw her winning the Olympic quota place in the 10m air rifle event at the Asian Olympic qualifier in Delhi. It was India’s eleventh berth for Rio 2016, and the lone one it could win in the event.
The victory helped Ayonika, a 2014 Commonwealth Games silver medallist, reclaim her self-belief. The past one year had been particularly tough for the 23-year-old MTech student from Mumbai. Things began changing when she teamed up with Olympian Suma Shirur. According to Shirur, Ayonika crammed a year’s work into three months to get to where she is now.
A day before Ayonika’s triumph, Kynan Chenai sealed one of four Olympic berths for India in men’s trap event. It was not an easy task: the Hyderabad-based shooter was under massive pressure to clinch the quota place after former world champion Manavjit Singh Sandhu failed to make it to the finals. The success gave Kynan bragging rights: just over a month ago, his father, Darius, had beaten him to a medal in the shotgun event at the National Shooting Championship in Jaipur. Since both Kynan and Manavjit were almost level in terms of points earned, a selection trial ensued last week, and ultimately Sandhu prevailed.
The quota-clinching feats of Ayonika, Kynan and pistol shooter Heena Sidhu were the bright spots for India in the last of the Olympic qualifiers. But they were overshadowed by the near misses and poor performances in events like double trap, men’s 10m air pistol and women’s 25m pistol. India has won a total of 12 berths for Rio Olympics—one more than London 2012, but less than the 15 to 18 berths predicted by the National Rifle Association of India. Of 35 berths that were up for grabs in New Delhi, India managed to win only four.
“It is not about disappointment,” said Raninder Singh, president of the NRAI. “Indeed, the number of quotas could have been more. But, barring one or two [shooters], our first rung had already got quotas. More would have given selectors greater flexibility to select the team for Rio.”
In fact, experts had not expected Indian shooters to win 15 to 18 Olympic berths. Former national champion and double trap coach Morad Ali Khan had termed the NRAI prediction “too optimistic”. Jaspal Rana, ace pistol shooter and junior national coach, said 12 berths were more than enough. “I don’t think it is a bad performance at all,” he told THE WEEK. “We have got more than enough [quota places]. We now need to concentrate on the 12 who will go to Rio, and work on them.”
What worries the NRAI is the manner in which some shooters failed to rise to the challenge. Vijay Kumar, the London 2012 silver medallist in pistol shooting, was off mark in the finals of the 25m rapid fire event. Mohammed Asab and Ankur Mittal topped the qualification rounds of double trap, but failed to maintain momentum in the finals and lost out on the two quotas available. The pistol shooting trio of Rahi Sarnobat, Annu Raj Singh and Anisa Sayyed failed to make it to the finals. Omkar Singh, the Commonwealth Games triple gold medallist, qualified for the finals of the air pistol. But, he then shot a series of below-par scores and failed to get one of the two quotas up for grabs.
The NRAI has decided to set up fact-finding committees to discover what went wrong. “We have to look at everything—whether we lacked in attitude, approach…. If there is something missing in our system, it needs to be addressed,” said Singh, who promised to look into the existing selection policy for rifle and pistol shooting. The policy, under which quotas belong to country and not individuals, holds little incentive for those who are not in serious contention to make it to the Olympic team.
More than the selection policy, said Rana, there are issues that need to be looked into—foremost among them, “the attitude and approach of a few athletes”. “Indian shooters are getting all the support. But, if money could buy medals, then countries like the UAE would be rolling in medals. I feel we have given too much to some shooters—money, free hand in deciding where and how to train,” said Rana.
His point is valid. Top shooters have been criticised for skipping national camps to train on their own base. “It is not players’ fault entirely,” said Rana. “We have to look at our entire system—where the federation and the government have erred. Anisa Sayyed has been without a coach. The government has barred our top pistol shooter, Prakash Nanjappa, from training with his father, who has always coached him. His dad is an ISSF (International Shooting Sport Federation) certified coach.”
According to Morad, top shooters must spend less time catching up on paperwork and more on training. “Their energies are spent on following up on grants, etc,” he said. “Also, the training schedules need a re-look. Our calendar needs to be rescheduled vis-a-vis the international calendar. Our season is off-season in Europe, so our shooters end up competing all the time.”
Sources said Mohinder Lal, who had replaced Sunny Thomas as national coach, is under the scanner for his poor performance. As the person responsible for keeping track of the progress of all shooters, he may have to explain to the NRAI why he allowed some shooters to hit such a low point. “It is a failure on Lal’s part that he allowed things to come to this point,” said a top official.
There is also the issue of the shooters not getting the advantage of competing on home soil. Dr Karni Singh Shooting Range, which hosted the Asian Olympic qualifier, was shut down for more than a month for renovation. “Almost every range has a problem,” said an experienced shooter. Last-minute renovations also led to reports of ranges having technical drawbacks. “What home advantage? Because of the lockdown, our shooters were not allowed to train on the range before the event,” said Rana.
Despite the problems, the focus is now on the last lap of preparations: selecting the 12 for Rio. “You have got the quotas,” said Morad. “Now, these people need to be trained.”