As the glitter and the dust settles on India’s historic Tokyo Olympics campaign, the focus should shift from celebration to introspection.
Due to the delay caused by the pandemic, we are already a year into the next Olympic cycle and the task at hand is to work on the problem areas identified in Tokyo. One such aspect was the performance of India’s shooting squad.
India sent their biggest ever team of 15 shooters for 10 events but only one final was reached – Saurabh Chaudhary in the 10m air pistol. But it was not just the fact that there were no medals or finals; sport is unpredictable as ever at the Olympics and the much-watched men’s javelin throw final is proof that being a favourite means very little. The bigger concern though was how the problems in the lead-up to the Olympics were either not identified or not worked upon enough.
This was the second straight Olympics that the Indian shooters fired a blank at. They had reached just two finals at Rio 2016 which led to a major reassessment of the systems and many changes were put into place by the National Rifle Association of India.
Yet, Tokyo was no different. While there were some legitimate and unprecedented issues this time – the impact of the pandemic wipeout, the loss of momentum after an impressive 2019 season, the mental aspect of the sport, the change in rules for the mixed team which was seen as the strongest shot, and the age of the shooters – the core issues seem to run much deeper.
On the face of it, a clear issue could be how Indian shooters dealt with pressure. The odd 8s and 9s during crucial shots back this up as a particular failing. In a sport as mentally focussed as shooting, the margins are always very narrow but Tokyo was a collective close miss. Since all but one shooter fell at the qualification level for which there was no broadcast, any assessment will be based on the scores and the target image updated on the official site. But look further back and the picture becomes clearer.
Hindsight is always 20/20 but the signs of trouble indeed came much before Tokyo.
At the Delhi and Osijek World Cups, when most of the Olympic core group didn’t match up to its best scores. But this could have been attributed to the process of peaking.
In Croatia, when the team was forced to stay away from family since May. But this was the right call given the escalating coronavirus situation in India.
Indeed, even in Changwon, back at the 2018 World Championship which began the Olympic quota cycle. Of the seven medals won in Changwon, only one was in individual Olympic disciplines (Saurabh Chaudhary participated in the junior section). But this came right after the Asian Games, where nine medals with two golds had shown that Indian shooting was on the surge and was not seen as a red flag.
What went wrong?
Ronak Pandit, the national High Performance Director and pistol coach, who was present in Tokyo believes that the issue stems from even further back... to 2018 even.
“I have always looked at our scores as a measure of our performance and not medals. I don’t think we had great results in either Commonwealth or Asian Games or World Championships,” he told Scroll.in.
While India won multiple medals at the ISSF World Cups – which are usually held four times in a year – and did well at the multi-sport events, the scores weren’t always the best, Pandit highlighted.
This then points to an issue of planning a schedule to get the peak performance right.
“The calendar or the road map should have Olympic Games as the ultimate goal and we need to work backwards from it. We don’t need to shoot at every competition in every corner of the world. Look at how many World Cups are played by some of these consistent Olympic performers... look at how many competitions Abhinav Bindra shot at in a year and how many days did he devote to training and you will have the answers,” he explained.
Bindra, in his autobiography, explained how he planned the peaking process once he confirmed his Olympic quota. For almost a year before Beijing, he stopped looking at his scores and focussed simply on getting better. It is a template that has worked for many shooters worldwide.
Olympian Joydeep Karmakar, a former rifle shooter turned coach who finished fourth in London 2012, believes the big issue in Tokyo was not technical, but psychological.
“Maybe I’m wrong but I would say that Indian shooters didn’t think they were underdogs,” Karmakar told Scroll.in. “To put it in other words, maybe the shooters have been preparing technically so that they don’t make a false step. Technically I cannot fault them, they have achieved the top scores a number of times. Even in Tokyo, they were capable of shooting more than they did. The problem was that they treated this as any other match.
“Though they are technically good... they were the best at the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and World Cups. The logic they had in their mind is that this was another competition. This doesn’t work, you have to accept the fact that the Olympics will kick you down. How you rise is what matters at Olympics.”
Karmakar further added: “For me, even though I didn’t win a medal, I had mentally prepared myself to face the pressure and not to avoid it. I was thinking that this is not any other match, I will face it clinically. Technically I can do it, but technically, everybody can do it because that’s why they’re there in the Olympics. You have to have that edge to shoot a 10 when you are required to under pressure, you need to have that mental strength to deliver and the highest technicality cannot help there,” he added.
What is the way ahead?
Planning and pressure management can be seen as the two big learnings from the Tokyo debacle. But that’s in the past. How does Indian shooting work forward from here?
One important aspect that needs looking into immediately is the bench strength. When it comes to selection, the NRAI has among the most direct performance-based and transparent policy in place, prominently displayed on the website, and the system has worked in all other competitions.
Take the example of Chaudhary and Abhisek Verma making their senior debut at the Asian Games ahead of the experienced Jitu Rai and Shahzar Rizvi. They both won medals too. But with the pandemic wipeout, the current form became much more difficult to judge. The core group for Tokyo was all but decided when the quotas were won, except in women’s 10m air rifle, and they played all competitions thereof based on the policy. Should this have changed?
Karmakar suggested a tweak to the current policy, whereby the system of merit points can be changed. At present, merit points are given to shooters who have done well at international events and in world rankings.
“The policy has been in place for a long time and it’s called a moving average, which is quite healthy because of the emphasis it places on your current form. But it is the merit points which actually make the difference. I think the merit points system is not exactly a picture of your current form. I’m not saying that you don’t honour them but out in the world, nobody is getting bonus points,” he explained.
But the balance between bench and core is also a Catch-22 situation. Firstly, not only are some World Cups crucial to winning Olympic quota places, there are medals and points on offer that shooters and their personal teams would not like to miss out on.
Also, Indians are shooting four national selection trials apart from the international events and a total of five scores were counted for the Tokyo cycle. That makes it even harder to miss the big events. This is where the senior stakeholders need to step in and formulate a policy that takes into account these moving parts.
One thing both Pandit and Karmakar believe needs to be looked into is the position of foreign coaches. Rifle coach Oleg Mikhailov and pistol coach Pavel Smirnov were the two foreign coaches (excluding skeet) involved with the Indian shooting team and the former Indian shooters said they found the foreigners to be technically lacking.
“I don’t think they were professional enough. A lot of the good work the Indian coaches tried to do wasn’t done as well because the foreign coaches had the final say,” pistol coach Pandit said, adding that his suggestions were overruled during the camp in Croatia. “The way they conduct simulation competitions was far from how it should be and I am certain it had an effect on our performances in Tokyo.”
Karmakar minced no words on this either when talking about Mikhailov. “It would be a big disaster if the foreign rifle team coach is continued with. Before India, he was a coach in Brazil, a country not known for shooting.”
This points to the need of building up India’s coaching system and trusting them as a long-term strategy.
The key for now though is to build towards Paris 2024 without forgetting what happened in Tokyo and learning from it instead. The way forward will be made trickier in 2022, with the Asian Games which will be the focus. But the World Championship is likely to be held in Russia too and it will be the first big test post-Tokyo.
It may be a conundrum between medals and long-term goals, but whether Indian shooting has emerged from the Olympic setback might just be determined by how we treat the competitions coming next year.