Weather conditions? Psychology? Time pressure? Media attention? Funding structure? Minutes had passed after Jitu Rai’s shock exit from the 50 metre pistol competition on Wednesday, but the inquest into the how and why had already begun, the disappointment of Rai’s premature elimination medal eliciting existential reflection. Rai had been tipped for a medal at Rio and he was one of India’s biggest prospects in shooting.

Raninder Singh, the president of the National Rifle Association of India, stood in an all-white outfit and brown monk strap shoes against a backdrop of green hills and a rainy sky. The media jostled. The wind blew briskly, back and forth at the shooting range of Deodoro, tucked away in outer corner of metropolitan Rio de Janeiro. Singh was as much at a loss as anyone else who had witnessed Rai’s inexplicable meltdown a few minutes earlier.

“I can’t explain it,” said Singh. “I think he misread the wind, there is otherwise no logic. You can have one shot that goes off, you can’t have three. Even the Korean [Jin Jongoh, who won the qualification with a score of 567 and the gold medal in the final with a score of 193.7] hit a six.”

An inexplicable collapse

With his first shot, Rai hit a 10, but he ended his first series with 92. In the second series, he bounced back with a triple ten. He repeated that feat in the fourth series, scoring 95. In between, Rai had registered a lowly 6, a flyer out of sync with his serene shooting. In the penultimate fifth series, the 28-year-old top-scored again with 95, including six scores of 10.

The Asian Games gold medallist was ranked fifth going into the final series. The first eight would qualify for the final. With ten minutes left, Rai was well into his sixth series. He hit two eights and a lowly seven to finish 12th, with a score of 88 in the final series and 554 overall.

The seven was an inexplicable mishit that immediately and irrevocably dashed Rai’s chance of progressing to the final. The Indian fans present gasped. They were puzzled by the shooter from the Sankhuwa Sabha district in Nepal and his display of so little consistency, a discrepancy from his achievements at the Commonwealth Games and other elite championships.

Afterward, the 28-year-old shooter spoke of “a big problem” in the final series as the wind became more pronounced, but he also mentioned that he had been “relaxed” and “not under pressure, with the perfect mindset”. His arm had been steady when he hit that seven, but a pistol doesn’t offer the stability of a rifle, and is subject to outside factors, notably wind and air temperature.

What ails our shooters?

And so, India’s lauded shooters, the cynosure of the gun-wielding Indian contingent – Rai and Bindra – failed to win a medal. It’s steadily becoming a jarring, but not so distinct, prospect that Team India may not ascend a podium at all in Rio de Janeiro, with hockey, badminton, wrestling and, maybe, tennis being the remaining disciplines in which India has realistic chances.

“It is a graph,” contended Singh. “When you are going into the Olympic Games, the last World Cup is where you have to be at your peak, not your absolute peak, but at the top. It is the Olympic Games. It affects the athletes more than being in a World Cup. We were unlucky, what to say?”

But, he contended, it could be a problem not related to physical performance. “Abhinav [Bindra] has done a lot of work on the mental aspect,” pointed out Singh. “We need to look at that. Not just for shooting, but for all Olympic events.”

Apart from mental guidance, Singh can also align himself with the argument of specialised shooters, notwithstanding that, in Rio, Vinh Hoang from Vietnam and Anna Korakaki from Greece excelled in different events. South Korea and China, powerhouses in shooting, do not have a policy of forcing shooters to specialise. “I agree, we need specialisation,” said Singh.

The post-mortem is underway, with an overhaul of Indian shooting under consideration, but as Singh turned away, he, and the rest of India were left to mull over what could have been.