2020 Tokyo Olympics was expected to be the brightest chapter of the golden generation of Indian shooting when the National Rifle Association of India picked a star-studded line-up for its biggest contingent. In fact, there was no dearth of expenditure on the team as the Sports Authority of India (SAI) reportedly spent close to Rs 5 crore on the shooters through Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) on various shooters as of April 2021.
An additional Rs 4 crore were also spent along with a monthly allowance of Rs 50,000 for each shooter for an 80-day training period in Croatia before the Olympics.
However, with all that was provided, the shooting guns fired blanks over the last one week in Tokyo and fans soon realised that the expectations of medal galore were too far-fetched, leaving many bewildered as to why the promising names couldn't match their performances from the past few seasons that had led to the buzz around the coming-of-age young shooting stars.
The success of pistol shooters Manu Bhaker, Saurabh Chaudhury, Abhishek Verma and rifle shooters Elavenil Valarivan and Divyansh Singh Panwar among others at major events over the past two-three seasons highlighted the new golden era of Indian shooting. This included medals at a canter at the last Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, Youth Olympic Games and numerous ISSF World Cups.
All of this, combined with the omnipresence of Indian shooters in the top echelons of ISSF World Rankings spread, painted a rosy picture of India's Olympic dreams where hopes were of not only going past the six-medal haul at the Tokyo Olympics but touching the double-digit figure as well.
However, a closer look at the facts reveals that too much was read into their successes and the recent results were more or less the reality of the situation.
ISSF RANKINGS: A MISREPRESENTATION
Entering the Olympics, India had four shooters -- Abhishek (men's 10m pistol), Yashaswani Deswal (women's 10m pistol), Chinky Yadav (25m pistol) and Elavenil (10m rifle) -- sitting at the top of various disciplines of ISSF world rankings. Apart from them, eight other shooters were also among the top 10s.
However, an important aspect of the rankings was ignored by many, which led to the belief that many Indian shooters would be in the fray for medals, as pointed out by Indian shooting expert Joydeep Karmakar, who finished fourth in 50m rifle prone event at the 2012 Tokyo Olympics.
"There was a myth around the world rankings," said Joydeep. "Indian shooters were overhyped due to the 2021 ISSF rankings but many aren't aware that ISSF set the ranking to zero at the beginning of the year as per their new rules; that means half a year of ranking was all that was taken into consideration."
It's worth noting that the two World Cups the Indians took part in 2021, medals came aplenty, especially at the New Delhi World Cup where India bagged 30 medals -- including 15 gold and nine silver. The June World Cup in Croatia -- where the shooters trained for two months leading to the Olympics -- saw India bag a gold and a silver in a haul of four medals.
Despite the strong showing, Indian shooters had little to rejoice as giants of the shooting were missing at these competitions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The ranking we saw only took into account the two World Cups (Delhi and Croatia) where Indian shooters hardly had a competitive field with nations like South Korea and China missing. So the expectation was out of proportion," said Joydeep.
SELECTION TRIALS WEREN'T FLAWLESS AMID PANDEMIC
NRAI is often praised for its transparent selection policy. However, with the pandemic setting in, a flaw in the selection policy appeared.
The core team leading to the Olympics was confirmed back in January 2020 after a selection trial in New Delhi's Karni Singh Ranges, which is often the national camp venue for the shooters. At that time, the trials seemed ideal with the Olympics months away while the pandemic was yet to tiptoe into India.
However, the pandemic soon changed the complexion with no competition in sight till March 2021, when the World Cup in New Delhi was chosen as the default selection trial for the Olympics. However, being a top-tier event meant that not all shooters were part of the de-facto trials, limiting the competition among the chosen few, argued Joydeep.
"The current group of Indian shooters were really in good form back in 2019 but after the COVID-19 interruption, the core team remained the same for the Olympics," said Joydeep. "The form of many shooters may not be the same after a gap of two years and that should've been taken into consideration. The door for the Olympics core team was shut for other shooters back in 2020 and that had an impact I feel.
"The list could have been more inclusive. Of course, with no competitions taking place there was no benchmark yet for other shooters to set. But when you have the luxury to send the list of shooters for Olympics till May 2021, they should have taken a bit more time to select the team and the purpose of having a huge bench strength of Indian shooters was lost," added the 41-year-old shooter-turned coach, who also coaches 2018 CWG individual rifle shooting silver medallist Mehuli Ghosh.
One may still argue that the best team was picked for the Olympics with only the top shooters competing for a spot at the Olympics in the World Cup. However, the terrible showing of the rifle shooters, especially when the hopes were high from the likes of Divyansh and Elavenil, still leaves a question mark on the selection policy; not to forget the fact that none of the rifle shooters made it to the finals and only one pistol shooter (Saurabh Chaudhury) featured in the final of the competition.
RECURRING PATTERN OF FAILURE TO PRIME AT THE OLYMPICS
This is something that doesn't even require a genius to figure out; Indian shooters have once again failed to peak at the Olympics. After a plethora of medals that were won since 2018, including seven medals at the 2018 World Championships (a quadrennial event that is considered equally competitive if not tougher than the Olympics), there's no medal to show at the Tokyo Olympics, which only suggests that Indian shooters are yet to figure out the right way to peak in a season; most importantly the Games.
"This has been the case, isn't it?" said Joydeep. "We like it or not, but performances are there to speak for it. No doubt that Saurabh, Manu and the entire shooting contingent are capable of winning medals at the biggest of stages but it's also important to prime at the right time. The competitors around them are the same. They have faced them many times before; defeated them before. It's important not all your energy is squandered by the time you reach for the event that matters."
And ignoring the hearsay stories on how many shooters were not exactly focussed on training in Croatia, that leaves us with one last question. Were young Indian shooters too nervous to deliver?
Well, that hardly matters to a ruthless event like Olympics, which only praises the top 3, or four in some events, while the rest are also-rans for it.
And as Saurabh, who also won two medals at the 2018 Youth Olympics, had an interesting thing to tell reporters when asked if the pressure got to him at the biggest stage. "Pressure kya hota hai? Wahin bandook hai, wahin goli hai, wahin nishana hai," he said.