For Indian shooters, gold but no glitter

Indian shooters top medal table at junior worlds but misleading results, rankings and Tokyo debacle call for realism

Two months after the Indian shooters drew a blank at the Tokyo Olympics, a bunch of teens have returned from the Junior World Championships in Peru with table-topping 43 medals – 17 gold, 16 silver and 10 bronze. On the face of it, this was a timely balm for a sport desperate for good news. But this is no assurance of Olympic success.

The Junior Worlds results run the risk of starting another cycle of puffing up names and blundering on the way to the 2024 Games at Paris. Even at the senior level, the chatter of year-round triumphs in the dime-a-dozen World Cups hasn’t been able to translate into that one shooting medal that matters the most. Headlines building up hype in India on every World Cup win – missing the context of field quality and pressure situations – in the run-up to Tokyo, led to miscalculations of what Indians were capable of.

“I was expecting approximately 10-12 medals at the Olympics. I was asked why shooting didn’t get medals. Those athletes might have had a bad day. This is the only sport where India is number one, where we had three world champions. I can assure you shooting will bounce back,” IOA President Narinder Batra said at a Maharashtra Olympic Association event last Friday. Only 3 gold and 10 overall medals of these 40 have come in events that are on the Olympic program and can be considered as long haul gains in identify shooters of quality.

A reality check of this medal haul can also double up as a delayed Tokyo Games post-mortem.

Take the common link between the two events; pistol star Manu Bhaker, who got 4 golds and a bronze at Peru. For the 19-year-old Olympian and winner of multiple World Cup medals, this certainly wasn’t a career-high or an early sign of a much-improved show at Paris in three years time.

Earlier this year, she went into Tokyo on the back of two 10m air pistol gold medals in senior World Cups (WC) and carried an impressive world ranking and medals won in mixed events and the Youth Olympics.

Tokyo showed that World Cups don’t prepare shooters for the Olympics because the top shooters don’t make it a point to turn up at them and in case they do, they don’t really push themselves too hard. In the 2019 World Cup at Putian, Bhaker won gold with a score of 578. The final featured just four of the Tokyo 2020 last eight finishers. Olympic gold medalist Vitalina Bastarashkina would finish 8th. Bhaker’s only other World Cup win, at Guadalajara 2018 (score 572), was a thin field, with three from among Tokyo’s finalists present and only two making finals.
At Tokyo, the finals cutoff was 577.

Crucially, Bhaker’s performance at the big events had red flags: the 2018 World Championships with top names (13th, score 574) and Asian Games (fifth, 574). Finishing 12th at Tokyo (575) was in line with these scores and finishes where the level of competition and pressure are both high.

Another case of a muddled read on a shooter was air rifle specialist Elavenil Valarivan. She finished best among Indians, but her 626.5 for 16th place was off the Tokyo cut-off of 628.5. She hit her stride toward the end-2019 to leapfrog Anjum Moudgil and Apurvi Chandela who had won India the quotas when they finished second and fourth respectively at the Worlds.

And while the 22-year-old is prone to sublime world record scores and broke through at the WC Finals with 631.1, there were tell-tale signs at big events: 14th place at Asian Games with 620.8 and the bigger World Cups – Beijing 2019 (17th; 626.9), Delhi 2019 (30th; 625.3), Delhi 2021 (12th, 626.7) and Osijek 2021 (55th, 621.1).

Moreover, when Valarivan won gold in Putian, only one player who made the Tokyo Olympics final was competing at the event – Korean Eunji.

Misleading rankings

Rankings – another misleading metric used to lead fans to believe Indians only needed to turn up at Tokyo to win – saw course corrections immediately after the Games. The former top 5s in rifle slipped – Divyansh Singh Panwar is ranked 17, Valarivan is 18, Moudgil 23 and Chandela 37. As on October 9, Saurabh Chaudhary was 3, Abhishek Verma 4, Yashaswini Deswal is 3, Bhaker was 4, pointing to a confusing and irrelevant ranking system in this sport where top nations are very picky about where they compete.

India had two World No 1s going into Tokyo, five World No 2s and two World No3s. That’s 9 shooters ranked 1/2/3.

Croatia: right decision, wrong execution

Whatever the reasons for transplanting the shooters into Croatia in the months before Tokyo (pandemic or to keep focus), the NRAI had identified the correct competition, in hindsight. The World Cup in Osijek was the most accurate indicator of form.

Valarivan finished 55th in air rifle, and sixth with Panwar in the mixed event. This was explained away as being just a lung-opener to tweak techniques, while it was clear that the eventual Tokyo medallists had arrived in Croatia primed to peak form. Pairing with Divyansh, the Indians ended at 12th at the Olympics. At the World Championships, she had been 13th.

Sixteen rifle shooters (eight pairings of a man and woman each) make Stage 2 of the mixed event typically, though pairings get shuffled by most countries.

Just two Tokyo Stage 2 qualifiers out of 16 at Delhi WC, six at Munich, five at Rio – pointed to Indians winning in weak competitive fields compared to Olympics. Beijing WC had eight of the 16. But it was at Osijek where 10 of the 16 who eventually made Tokyo Last-8 showed up in rifle – five of those eight teams reaching Stage 2 in the mixed event at Osijek. And the Indian team was sixth. On the whole, the 16 shooters in the mixed rifle participated in an average of just 2.3 World Cups, while Indians went to at least 6 each.

The one that mattered at Osijek, was waved away as ‘finishing touches, technique tweaks.’ It was sadly a harbinger of the wretched showing in Tokyo.

In pistol, hopes of India medalling at the mixed event through Manu-Sourabh were puffed up based on four World Cups Indian pairings won in 2019, and two in 2021. The 2019 Cups saw ISSF still tweaking with the format, while a bulk of eventual Tokyo medallists were not present where Indians won.

Indians won at Delhi (2019 & 2021) and Munich and Beijing in 2019. Here’s where their paths didn’t cross with eventual Tokyo medallists: Chinese gold winners Ranxin Jiang (not at Munich & Delhi 2021), Wei Pang (not at Munich & Delhi 2019 & 2021), Russian silver medallists Vitalina & Chernousov (not at Munich & Delhi), and the Ukrainian bronze medallists Kostevych (not at Delhi 2019&21 and Beijing) and Olemchuk (not at Beijing & Delhi 2021).

The China Way

So how do the highly consistent shooting superpowers plan their schedule? China can be a good case study. They first won a shooting Olympic gold medal in 1984, and were heading into Tokyo on the back of what Chinese news agency Xinhua called the “worst performance for the team since 1988.” This was “only one gold, two silvers and four bronze medals” from Rio 2016.

India’s selection plans were set in stone till before the pandemic. The calculations got carried forward before unravelling altogether. In the crucial air rifle, where Anjum & Apurvi had won the quotas at World Championships, Elavenil had staked a late claim on the spot based on lower competition World Cups. Finally, none of them were in great form at Osijek in April, and Olympics got dire.

Nobody proposes India blindly ape China’s highly controlled system of talent identification and micro-managing the lives of young shooters. But China was quicker in reacting to the pandemic postponement and in May 2020 called up an expanded squad for the national camp, according to Xinhua. Every event had at least 6 fighting for the two spots per country.

The Chinese put the squad through a nine-day tournament in Guangzhou that wrapped up a ‘multiple-stop’ series in March-April 2021. These were seven such exact simulations of ‘competition day’ from Tokyo, where the domestic crop would push each other for Olympic spots. From that larger pool of shooters, with an average age of under 25 years, 19 maximum quotas got filled for the Olympic squad.

“The shooting team adapted the timetable and qualification system, increasing the gravity of qualification points for the last four stops. As a result, some big names, including Rio 2016 gold medalist Zhang Mengxue (women’s 10m air pistol), world champions Zhao Ruozhu (women’s 10m air rifle) and Zhang Jingjing (women’s 25m pistol), lost their Tokyo slot to younger teammates,” Xinhua quoted. This meant the Tokyo bound shooters literally shot in an “Olympic level field and competitive simulation” four times back to back in March, to identify who could take the pressure in August.

The recent Junior World event hints at depth for India. It also hints at a deceptive smugness of 43 medals which don’t necessarily lead to an Olympic medal.

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