Saurabh Chaudhary was just 16 years old when he won the Asian Games gold in men’s 10m air pistol, beating a star-studded field on what was his senior international debut. Since then, he has only grown from strength to strength, winning World Cup medals with relative ease and a consistency that almost gave a sense of complacency to Indian sports fans.

So when the youngster, still only 19 and the youngest in the final field, couldn’t win a medal at his first ever Olympic Games, there seemed to be an evident sense of disappointment. The teen finished seventh in the eight-shooter final, just an hour after topping the qualification. There was a definite dissonance between the two performances.

It is not as if he had a bad campaign, he topped the qualification ahead of Olympic champions. This was expected of him, but it came soon after no Indian reached the final of women’s 10m air rifle.

It is not as if his campaign is over, he is yet to play the 10m air pistol mixed team, an event which he has dominated at World Cups with Manu Bhaker.

Yet, in perhaps what is a mark of Indian shooting’s improvement in the last three years, there were expectations of a medal from the first day of competition. With women’s 10m air rifle and men’s 10m pistol kicking off the action, the hope was understandable. What is not is the questions that are being raised over the youngsters.

Handling pressure

The general feeling was that this is reminiscent of the heartbreak shooters endured at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Back then, the 12-member contingent was seen as sure-shot medal hopes and only two managed to reach the final. There was also talk about hyping up the athletes needlessly. That the youngsters ‘choked’ at the big stage, youngsters who have won World Cups as teens.

But in all of this what is forgotten is that these are the Olympic Games; the biggest stage in sport and the one with the most pressure. And this is just the first day of Tokyo 2020, delayed by a year.

Yes, Chaudhary felt the occasion and looked nervous, indeed this was the first time in his international career the nerves showed on him. But this was his first taste of the Olympics and the first time he has entered a multi-sport event as a favourite.

Earlier in the qualification, which was not broadcast, he finished ahead of the pack with a striking performance.

The 19-year-old was composed in a highly competitive field comprising of multiple world and Olympic champions in Chinese shooters Pang Wei and Zhang Bowen, Serbian Damir Mikec, Christian Reitz, the reigning Olympic champion in the men’s 25m rapid fire pistol, as well eventual champion Iran Javad Foroughi, who had been in red-hot form. It was not an easy qualification round as stalwarts Artem Chernousov and Jin Jongoh actually missed out.

He scored a total 586/600 (28 x inner 10s), which included a perfect series of 100. All through the 60 rounds, he kept consistently highest scores. He bounced back after six straight 9s and had a whopping 23 straight 10s at one points.

Just the start

As Jitu Rai, the pistol ace who was the predecessor to this role, said Chaudhary’s real level shows in his scores. “Saurabh Chaudhary is something else. I have seen him shoot and it’s not just about the medals he is winning, he is actually winning them with very high scores. It is amazing how he does that so regularly and so well. I may have also won a lot of medals in international competitions but you can see that Saurabh’s scores are higher than what I was shooting,” Rai told PTI in an interview before the Olympics.

Unfortunately in the final, a bad start meant he was placed seventh and couldn’t recover from that in what a low-scoring final through the board. He finished with a score of 137.4.

It definitely was a disappointing end for one of India’s most promising athletes. But as shooting fans will remember a certain Abhinav Bindra also finished seventh the first time he competed in an Olympic final. That was the 2004 Athens Games, where he was third in the qualification, and the next time he found himself in an Olympic final, we all know what happened: an individual gold medal. Gagan Narang also reminded of the need for experience when he recounted he won his Olympic medal only in his third appearance during a studio show with host broadcasters Sony Sports.

Chaudhary is 19 and just at the start of his career. By no means is this his only Olympics, indeed it’s not even his only event in Tokyo. For all one can tell, the pressure of this first Olympic final might actually help him in the mixed team event where the format further enhances his consistency.

For now, the shooter need not look further than India’s first medalist at Tokyo 2020 – Mirabai Chanu. On her Olympic debut in Rio, where she was a favourite, she couldn’t even complete the event and said she was completely broken after. Five years later, she’s on the podium as a silver medalist.

That is how sport works. That is how Olympics work.

Fortunately for Chaudhary and Indian sport, he has a long career ahead with eyes on Paris and Los Angeles even. He’s already proven he can hold his own in a world class field. For now, he still has a chance of a medal in Tokyo and the first day is definitely too early to raise questions about one of India’s brightest young talents.