Manu Bhaker was virtually a shot away from making the women’s 10m air pistol event at the Tokyo Olympic Games on Saturday – two or three points in her overall score would have likely seen her finish in the top eight. But a double malfunction in her gun meant she fell short in the first event of her Olympic debut.
The Indian finished with 575 points and was placed 12th, just four places away from the eight-shooter final. France’s Celine Goberville bagged the last qualifying spot with 577 points (even the 7th place shooter had a total of 577). Anything could have happened in the final series.
But a couple of 9s and 8 in that final series ended that hope. In fact, with two 10s needed from her last two attempt, she got one on the 59th shot and missed the 60th. The margins cannot closer than that.
A qualification exit is understandable given she’s just 19 and playing at the Olympic level for the first time. But to come this close after rejigging your weapon mid-match and losing 20 minutes in the 75-minute match, seems extremely unfortunate.
On some sections of social media, the teenager was at the receiving end of criticism. Bhaker, who is shooting in three events in Tokyo, is world No 2 in 10m air pistol and has regularly got good results on the circuit, with consistent finals if not medals. Therefore after a blank on the first day, there were naturally hopes from her.
While the weapon malfunction alone cannot be blamed for not making the final, it certainly explains why the normally quick and consistent shooter in qualification was under enormous pressure.
So what exactly happened?
According to pistol coach Ronal Pandit who is accompanying her in Tokyo, the cocking lever of Bhaker’s gun broke and while replacing that, there was a circuit malfunction.
“Her cocking lever – this is the lever you pull and the barrel opens so you can load – broke so she couldn’t load and then the circuit also stopped working. It’s not something that breaks ever, it’s a metal part and it had to be fixed,” he told Scroll.in from Tokyo.
The trouble was evident early on. Shooting qualification is not broadcast live but the scores are updated in real time on the official website. In 10m air pistol, a shooter gets 75 minutes to get away 60 shots over six series. The shots are scored in numerals like 8, 9, and 10 with inner 10s being the tiebreaker. Midway through her third series, the numbers stopped for Bhaker for a while other competitors continued.
Initially, it was assumed to be a break, since shooters are allowed to stop midway to regroup in qualification. Later journalists at the event revealed that she had suffered an equipment malfunction because of which she had to step away from the range and get it fixed.
She lost close to 20 minutes and didn’t even have a minute each for each shot by the time she returned. When the technical snag hit, she was left to shoot 44 shots in 55 minutes and to complete the rest in 36 minutes, an improbable task in any level of competition. Yet, she finished her series with a respectable score. The final shot was crucial, as we mentioned earlier, and she hit an 8 where an inner 10 could have all but clinched qualification.
Did she not have a spare gun?
Generally shooters have a spare gun on hand, but Pandit explained that they had to make a “practical call” based on time left and they chose to repair the main gun as the sighters and practise had already been done with that.
“The spare gun is 90% like your main gun, you try to make the trigger and grip as similar as possible to your main gun but it is humanly impossible to make it the same. If we had used the spare gun, we would need to change the main grip and do sighters again. If we had done that, the time it took to get the repairs done would be similar because the main thing that takes time is changing grip and circuit,” he explained.
In shooting, the weapon is an extension of your hand and players generally use the same gun for practise and technical training at the final venue. Changing the gun could have further thrown her off her rhythm.
“Had something major gone wrong, we would have used the spare gun. But we have to see pros and cons of the situation and of course we wanted to save time,” he added.
But that was not the end of Bhaker’s woes, as per her coach. While fixing the lever, there was an issue with the circuit and then there was a further delay due to miscommunication with the jury.
“The jury gives you permission to take the gun to a designated area, which is in a different space for safety reasons and you have to walk there. Then, the jury has to give you a signal to start shooting again, but this took another two-three minutes more,” he added.
“She had taken 19-20 minutes to shoot the first 16 shots, we were perfectly on time but it came down to 36 minutes for 44 shots. A shooter is not given extra time in the final, no matter the circumstances.”
The coach, who has been working with the teenager for only a few months now, was all praise for how she bounced back. He emphasized that it was not bucking under pressure’.
“Everything that could go wrong went wrong without any fault of hers. It’s amazing what she did in spite of all this, with the malfunction and the pressure of it being an Olympics. And I want to say that she didn’t collapse. Yes, we try to be ready for any eventuality, you foresee the circuit going wrong, batteries dying, the screws or grip getting losing but you cant see forsee a part that is not supposed to break,” he said.
The 19-year-old’s first Olympic foray is by no means over though. She has two more events to go – the women’s 25 sport pistol and the 10m air pistol mixed team event with Saurabh Chaudhary, which is perhaps the strongest medal chance for Indian shooting. Bhaker and Chaudhary have an incredible record in the event.
The first experience of the Olympics stage is anyway tough... look at Chaudhary on Saturday, and even Mirabai Chanu at Rio 2016. But it is also a rite of passage. Fortunately for Bhaker, she has two more chances in Tokyo to put this behind and start afresh. As Pandit said, “Even if she had won the medal today, tomorrow is a fresh day and we start again.”