It’s been so long since India’s shooting team last competed that between then and now, teenage rifle shooter Divyansh Panwar’s crew cut has turned into a Zlatanesque man bun, pistol sensation Saurabh Chaudhary – who rarely utters a word – talked endlessly with his teammates and the hierarchy in the highly-competitive women’s air rifle event has virtually turned upside down.
However, the most crucial change in the last 16 months is momentum. This time last year, the 15 Tokyo-bound shooters – with an outside chance of one more qualification – looked primed to return with a rich medal haul. Now, with the postponed Olympics just 127 days away, every claim of a medal is followed by an asterisk as there is no way to gauge their – or their opponents’ – form.
For this reason, the year’s first World Cup, which begins at the Dr Karni Singh Shooting Range in New Delhi on Friday – assumes significance. It will be the rifle and pistol team’s first competition since November 2019 (shotgun shooters played in a World Cup recently), when they capped off a remarkable year with five gold, two silver and a bronze medal at the ISSF World Cup Final in China.
That year, across the four World Cups and the World Cup Final, Indian shooters won 21 gold medals – 10 more than the second-placed team on the list, China. This, coupled with a record number of qualifications for the Tokyo Olympics and the presence of world number 1s and world record holders in their ranks, created an aura of invincibility around the team.
The pandemic, however, scuttled the best-laid plans. And starting Friday, they’ll begin again. “They are professionals. They have been in training even in lockdown,” National Rifle Association of India president Raninder Singh said.
Almost all shooters who have earned a quota for the Olympics said they used this period to ‘get better’. Panwar, who has added a few inches to his height in the last 16 months, had to work on his posture. Pistol shooter Manu Bhaker focused on the mental side of the game while her teammate in the mixed event, Saurabh Chaudhary, trained nonstop at a makeshift range at home.
The Delhi World Cup could well be the only opportunity for the shooters to get some international matches before the Olympics (July 23-August 8). The recent surge of cases in India and elsewhere could hamper the team’s preparations.
The World Cup in Changwon, South Korea, which was scheduled for next month, was postponed due to the stipulation of 14-day hard quarantine for all teams. One month before the Olympics, Baku is scheduled to host a World Cup as well but it is not certain if that tournament will go ahead as planned and whether India will be sending its team.
And even though shotgun shooters have a World Cup in Lonato, Italy, in May, their participation is under a cloud because the hopes of Mairaj Khan and Angad Bajwa of training at their base in Italy were dealt a blow after half of the country’s regions went into a strict lockdown earlier this week.
To compensate, domestic tournaments have been lined up and Raninder said NRAI is also considering inviting shooters from other countries to Delhi to train and compete. “We are identifying countries we can invite for each discipline and will bear all costs. The situation is the same for everyone.”