Apart from being born into the royal family of Patiala, Randhir Singh was also born into a family of cricketers. His grandfather, Bhupinder Singh, was the captain of the Indian cricket team that toured England in 1911 and played in 27 first-class cricket matches between 1915 and 1937.
His father, Bhalindra Singh, played a first-class match for Cambridge University against Northamptonshire in 1939. His uncle, Yadavindra Singh, also known as the Yuvraj of Patiala, played one Test match against England in Chennai in 1934, in which he scored 24 and 60.
Cricket was in Randhir Singh’s genes. He captained his school’s cricket team and intended to continue playing when he entered college. However, sometime in 1963, his life changed.
Then 16 years old, Singh was on his way to his maternal grandfather’s ancestral estate in Uttar Pradesh for a round of hunting when his maternal aunt told him something that really upset him. A national champion herself, Kusum Sandhu had enrolled her nephew for the junior Nationals in clay-pigeon shooting.
Shooting was not alien to Singh – far from it. It was a part of his life growing up after being born into a royal family. Nearly everyone in his family knew how to shoot and everyone had guns and rifles. He was initiated to the sport via target shooting before eventually graduating to hunting, when it was still legal in India. Shooting was like a family pastime.
His maternal grandfather, who taught him the nuances and etiquettes of shooting, owned a huge stretch of land in Uttar Pradesh from the Ganges all the way up to Kashipur on the foothills of the Himalayas. Singh would spend days together with his grandfather, learning the tricks of the trade.
However, like his ancestors, Singh’s first sport had always been cricket. But now, he had to play in the junior shooting Nationals because of his aunt. “I was very upset with her,” Singh remembers.
Despite his reluctance, Singh ended up winning the junior Nationals in his first attempt and went on to represent India in the pre-Olympic Games in Tokyo. He made his senior debut as an 18-year-old at the 1964 Nationals when he was part of the winning team in trap, one of the three major disciplines in competitive clay-pigeon shooting. In 1967, he won his first national individual title, in skeet. Singh ended up shooting competitively for India for 31 years.
In trap shooting, saucer-shaped clay targets are launched from a single machine called a trap. In skeet shooting, targets are launched from two machines in paths that intersect in front of the shooter.
Less than a year after shooting competitively, Singh even went to the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo as a reserve in the Indian team. While he did not get to compete, he still had a great experience. “I remember the room next to mine was Sardar Milkha Singh and Sardar Gurbachan Singh Randhawa,” he said. “I turned 18 during the Olympics so the athletes’ village sent me a cake and we all shared it together.”
Singh got his chance to shoot for India at the Olympics in 1968 but finished 17th in mixed trap. He represented India in as many as five more Olympic Games but failed to win a medal. He did, however, become the first Indian shooter to win a gold medal at the Asian Games, in Bangkok in 1978.
The competition took place over three days and Singh managed to get a lead every day. “In the last round I had to shoot 15-20 to win the gold out of 25. It was quite comfortable. Once I got closer to the gold medal and had a big gap, there was a lot of disturbance, the press landed up, all our shooters started making noise, and I missed one target. I said to them, ‘Keep quiet. Let me finish at least,’” he added, laughing.
At the 1982 Asian Games, which were held in New Delhi, Singh won the team silver and individual bronze. He shot again at the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul and then at Hiroshima 1994. Hiroshima was a particularly special Games for Singh as the night before his competition, the Olympic Council of Asia held its elections. The 48-year-old was re-elected secretary general of the OCA for the second time and the following morning, he shot for the Indian team. “We did not win a medal, but we still broke the Asian record,” he said.
For over 10 years between 1983 and 1994, Singh was both an international-level shooter and an administrator. He joined sports administration, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, father and uncle, in 1983 when he became president of the Delhi Athletic Association. In 1984, he was elected joint secretary of the Indian Olympic Association. Three years later, he became secretary general and remained in the position till 2014.
He joined the Olympic Council of Asia in 1991, became secretary general and remained there till 2015. Now, he is a life vice president of the Asian body. He also became an International Olympic Committee member in 2001 and was there till 2014. He is now an honorary life member.
“They’re both very interesting fields,” said Singh, but if he had to pick, he would choose the life of a sportsman any day. “A sportsman has a better life,” he said, with a smile. “Shooting is less complicated. It’s competition but it’s more enjoyable. To survive in sports administration, or any political setup, is all about lobbying. It’s not something you can lay a claim on merit. You have to work your way through. That being said, I feel all sportspersons should get into the national federations of their sport.”
During his 30-year stint with the IOA, Singh saw various governments and their ministers come and go, but claims he never had a falling-out with any of them. The relationship between the IOA and the Sports Ministry seems to be in the pits currently, with the two bodies engaging in numerous squabbles over the last few months, most recently over the Indian contingent for the 2018 Asian Games.
Singh can only look at the ongoing ruckus with pity. “We never had a tiff with the government on clearing the Indian teams, training or sending them abroad,” he said. “The only problem we had was about the autonomy of the IOA, which is an issue that is still going on.”
Explaining it further, he said, “The government should not get into the running of the IOA as long as it is clean and transparent. The IOA and government should work together and not lose focus that they are both there for the sportsperson. It has to be a Team India spirit.”
Singh is hopeful of a rich haul of medals from Indian shooters at the 2018 Asian Games, just like the Commonwealth Games earlier this year, where they won 16. On some level, Singh wishes he was shooting in today’s era, where the government provides equipment and funding. “We had to run pillar to post to buy ammunition,” he said.
“Import of ammo wasn’t easy. Import of guns was impossible. In today’s world it is very simple. The government pays for training abroad, it gives ammo and equipment. You get permits, import licenses, everything from the federation. You don’t have to run around ministries. I’m sure I would have won many more competitions in today’s world,” he added.
Singh has no regrets, however, whether it’s about the era he was born in, or the fact that he was almost forced into taking up shooting competitively. It all worked out pretty well for him in the end.
This interaction was arranged by the Olympians Association of India – By the Olympians, For the Olympians. If you are an Olympian or wish to know more about us, please reach out to us on firstname.lastname@example.org.