At the end of the 20th century, we started realising our true potential and passion for shooting, which was a relatively new event for India then. Those were the days when the shooters were getting exposed to international competitions as their performances reached new heights, but reaching the podium was still a challenge for us.
We felt the need for foreign coaches as we were new to this exposure. Tibor Gonzol, a pistol coach from Australia, was in India for three years prior to the 2000 Sydney Olympics and Hungarian rifle coach Laszlo Szucsak later joined him in 1998. I consider them the pillars of Indian shooting. They built a good foundation and taught us what the system is. Apart from technical guidance and coaching, they took responsibility of administration as well. They set a perfect system where we started having training camps and selection trials and we started to make a mark at the international level. This was a real turning point for shooting in India.
For the 2000 Sydney Olympics, I received a wildcard entry at the last minute. Even though I had just 20-25 days to prepare for the competition, I gathered myself and shot well in the qualifiers to become the first Indian shooter to reach an Olympic final. It was a great start for shooting in India as we started believing that nothing is impossible.
By Athens 2004, the Indian shooters were completely prepared. The system was in place and we had good support from the federation as well as the government. We had won Olympic quotas with strong performances along with many medals at the world stage. The entire Indian shooting team was in good spirits, and while Abhinav Bindra missed a medal just by one point, Rajyavardhan Rathore’s silver was encouraging for the journey as India started performing well in every competition, right from the Commonwealth and Asian Games to the World Cups.
After Bindra won India’s first individual Olympic gold medal, we realised through interviews and his autobiography that it requires special preparation and everything matters — hard work, dedication, passion, support, good coaching and other things like fitness, physiotherapy, nutrition, environment as well as teammates. But for India, it was a breakthrough, and a new generation started their careers with a different mindset.
India had a strong shooting team at London 2012, but I was disappointed that no woman made it to the 10m air rifle event. Vijay Kumar won silver in the rapidfire pistol, which is considered very difficult and prestigious event in shooting. But Gagan Narang’s bronze in the men’s air rifle meant the Indian shooting team had all three colours in its kitty.
Unfortunately, Rio 2016 was a huge disappointment as the Indian shooting squad returned empty-handed. In my opinion, this failure was mainly because of flawed planning as the shooters were given too much freedom. It taught us that money cannot win you a medal as huge amounts were spent but at the wrong time. Success at the Olympics requires a long-term vision and preparation that involve qualified professionals and experts along with the involvement of the corporate sector for funding. The overall environment for actualisation of athletes’ potential has to be infallible.
For India, Abhinav Bindra’s first individual Olympic gold medal was a breakthrough for India. – AP
From 2017 onwards, changes started taking place under the leadership of our young president Raninder Singh, who showed faith in the senior shooters. He divided the junior and senior squads, and appointed Indian coaches for them. I appreciate the efforts of Deepali Deshpande and Jaspal Rana who took responsibility for the junior squads. Initially, a few people criticised our president’s decision to invest in the juniors, but four years down the line, their performances speak for them.
The coaches dedicatedly took care of everything — scheduling training sessions, planning camps, conducting competitions, selecting good junior shooters in the squad, providing them with good exposure. Discipline, patriotism, team spirit and bonding — they tried their best to inculcate everything in the shooters. As a result, we started getting better performances at the international level. There was a noticeable difference between the senior and the junior teams’ mindset — the juniors had a good rapport with the coaches and it was easier to give feedback. It was perfect teamwork with superior planning.
Shooters like Anjum Moudgil and Shriyanka Sadangi turned senior while other juniors like Manu Bhaker, Saurabh Chaudhary and Yashaswini Deshwal were performing well at the international level. Fortunately, the International Shooting Sport Federation started organising multiple junior competitions, and our youngsters made the most of the opportunities. Later, experienced shooters like Samaresh Jung, Suma Shirur and Manoj Kumar joined in to provide their expertise to our national team.
Considering all these factors, I feel our shooting team is going to Tokyo with the perfect preparation. A very transparent selection policy was in place along with good planning and excellent execution. Every Olympics-bound shooter has a good amount of funding or support from the government and non-government organisations.
Performing at the highest level has become routine for India’s shooters. This is a team of mostly youngsters who started their careers during Bindra’s golden era, so they have a positive attitude. They are aggressive and fearless. In our day, we had a bit of a complex when taking on foreign athletes. Now, these youngsters are confident, definitely talented and perform without any distress.
As everything was perfectly planned, we were very hopeful about the Olympics in 2020. But the pandemic hit the world and everything went haywire. The federation managed to provide training at the Dr Karni Singh Shooting Ranges for the squad, but while other countries were having normal practice and competitions, our shooters had to train in a controlled environment and missed many competitions. The scenario changed later, and we also got an opportunity to organise the World Cup in Delhi, where our shooters excelled.
In Tokyo, there will be limits on the number of support staff members and officials. Of course, spectators won’t be allowed, and that can make a big difference psychologically. But travelling with the team, enjoying the opening ceremony, staying in the Olympic village and having meals together in the huge dining hall where you bump into various elite athletes is a unique experience.
I wish good luck to the whole Indian contingent. They have put in their sweat and blood to reach this destination. I am confident about the performances of our shooters, but let us not make any predictions about medals. No focusing on the outcome; being in the moment is the key!
Anjali Bhagwat, a three-time Olympian, has won 31 gold medals at the international level including at the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and World Cups in the 10m Air Rifle and Rifle 3 Position. Anjali now runs her own shooting academy in Pune.