When Hriday Hazarika was crowned the 10m Air Rifle junior men world champion in Changwon, Korea, on Friday, India’s only Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra tweeted a question asking whether people remembered the first Indian rifle shooter to win a junior world championship gold.
It is the kind of trivia that, perhaps, only those who follow the sport very diligently would know the answer to. Even the responses to Bindra’s tweet indicated many thought it was him before the right answer came from a few sources.
The man who achieved the rare feat in 2006 – Navnath Fartade.
Who is Fartade?
Fartade, who belonged to Charhata village in Beed district of Maharashtra, surprised everyone – including himself – in Croatia’s capital Zagreb 12 years ago when he shot a total of 596 out of 600 with a faulty rifle to clinch the gold medal. Bindra won the senior gold in the same championship and then went on to become the first Indian individual Olympic gold medallist two years later.
In contrast, Fartade bagged the team bronze at the Doha Asian Games and also won a SAFF Games gold a few months later. But by the time Beijing Games arrived, he was nowhere among the contenders and was all but forgotten by the time India hosted the 2010 Commonwealth Games, four years after he created history.
This correspondent met Fartade recently, sitting behind a desk at the Shiv Chattrapati Sports Complex in Pune surrounded by files of the State Sports Department that included the list of sportspersons to be felicitated for their achievements in national and international competitions. The only proof of his glorious past was a couple of his own photographs in shooting gear placed around the room full of files and other paraphernalia.
His office is just about half a kilometer away from the state-of-the-art shooting range that is used by many of the country’s top shooters. But by Fartade’s own admission he hasn’t visited the range for months and doesn’t remember the last time he got time to pick up a rifle and go for a decent practice session.
At 32, he is an assistant director with the State Sports Department and works from their headquarters. He has to oversee many responsibilities ranging from policies, scrutiny of documents and official protocols.
This means he has to put in long hours at work and the only time he probably has to go and train is late in the day, which also isn’t always possible.
For his family members and even for Fartade, his job means a lot given his financially poor background. In fact, he could take up the sport only because he was picked under the Maharashtra government’s Krida Prabodhini Scheme in 1999 and given all the support he needed at their Kolhapur centre.
But talk to him and one can feel the hurt of not being able to do justice to his own talent, though he dismisses it immediately with a smile. “I would love to continue shooting and win medals. But the responsibilities of the family come first. I do miss shooting at times but now there is so much work in office that there is no time left to train.”
When Fartade took up shooting a year after joining the Kreeda Prabodhini centre in Kolhapur, the only question his family and the villagers would ask him when he went home was when would they would get to see him on the television screen?
None of them had any idea that shooting was a sport and it was only after he won the world championship gold and the euphoria around his success reached home did he even attempt to explain to them what he actually did.
Though the Asian Games team bronze medal soon followed, the pressure of his own expectations started to affect him as he wanted to prove to even himself that the world title wasn’t a flash in the pan. Things only went from bad to worse when he moved to Pune after being appointed as a coach by the state government.
He wasn’t assigned any trainees so that he could concentrate on training but the move to a city outside his “comfort zone” had disastrous effect.
In Kolhapur, Fartade would always train in the first lane to remind him about his goal of being the numero uno one day. But in Pune’s 80-lane facility, he soon shifted to a lane closer to the doors and in the initial days would ask the guard to stand behind him if he was alone on the range. It took him months to adjust to the big city and by then his confidence was shattered.
“On the very first day when I came here (Balewadi) to train, I was overwhelmed by the facilities. The only thought that came to my mind was – what if I fail to make the most of what is being given to me?” he had said a few months after his move to Pune.
Fartade did contemplate leaving everything behind and going back to Kolhapur to train with his coach Ajit Patil after he struggled for almost a year and half, and could not make it to the 2010 Commonwealth Games squad.
But it was the thought of earning money to get his parents out of the daily wage farm labourer’s job that became a priority for him.
“That was a period when my mother was also not well. So when any villager used to say, ‘Tu motha zhalas pan tuzhe aai vadil aahet tithech aahet’ (You have become a big man but your parents are still where they were), it used add to the pressure,” he had said then.
Fartade then took a break, renovated his house in the village – which he calls a Nano house enough for his parents to live in – and then again tried to start from scratch. He began coaching a few Krida Prabodhini trainees in Pune to clear his own mind and also learn things through idea exchange with other shooters. He began shooting the 50m events and also took the help of the legendary Anjali Bhagwat to work on his technique as he tried to turn things around before the qualifying period for the 2012 London Olympics started.
But then he was transferred to Kolhapur as a District Sports Officer after being given a job under the special provisions for elite sportspersons in late 2011. Since then, shooting has taken a back seat. He definitely had a place to train in Kolhapur and later in Mumbai and he did try his best to keep going but there was no escaping the responsibilities of the job as he had handle the issues of the entire district.
No time to train
Under the state government rules, these top sportspersons still don’t have luxury of taking time off for practice except for tournaments. Some of them do use the two-year without-pay leave to keep their career going but Fartade insists it is still not possible for him to take that route. “How would I have run the house and funded my training if I took without pay leave,” he said.
It’s not just Fartade. Even swimmer Virdhawal Khade, who missed the Asian Games bronze in 50m freestyle by a whisker, was out of action for four years as he was posted in Konkan and had no time or facilities to train after office hours.
There has been talk within the government to give special leave to top sportspersons employed under the sports quota, but no one is sure when the proposal would finally set the light of the day.
Fartade understandably isn’t willing to talk about the subject but insists that he is just 32 and the thought of making a comeback still brushes his mind whenever he goes to the shooting range.
Though he doesn’t get time to train, he makes it a point to compete in the nationals and manages to shoot a decent score that keeps him in the Elite Shooter category.
“I tried balancing practice and work till almost 2015 and even shot a 616 in the senior nationals that year,” he said. “I used to somehow find an hour or two to practice everyday then. But now with the work-load increasing, I am shooting from nationals to nationals. It at least keeps me in touch and if I do get a chance to start training again, I at least won’t have to start from the lower rung of tournaments again.”