When Kynan Chenai reached the final of the men’s trap event at Asian Championships at the start of this month, it appeared as if India’s search for an Olympic quota in shotgun events for Tokyo Games is finally over. After all, he had to just finish fifth out of six finallists. But as fate would have it, he finished sixth and missed out.
In all likelihood, no trap shooter will be competing for India at Tokyo Olympics. That is after no one made it to the final at any of the World Cups this year. Chenai came close twice but missed out on both occasions. The women were no different.
“I was hoping for four quotas (from shotgun events),” said India’s shotgun coach Mansher Singh. “After the penultimate round [in Doha], all four [shooters] were in contention for the final but we lost out in the end. If we have shown a little more mental strength, we had a quota guaranteed.”
Shotgun shooting in India has seen relative success. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won a silver medal in double trap at the Athens Olympics in 2004. Manavjit Singh Sandhu became world champion and world number one in the trap. Ronjan Singh Sodhi is a former world number one in the double trap. Despite not winning a medal at Beijing or London Olympics, India managed to win medals at World Cups and even get direct qualification for the Olympic Games.
When it came to qualifying for Tokyo Olympics, the trap event was always more likely to get a quota than skeet. This time, however, skeet has two quotas. Double trap is not a part of Olympics any more.
It’s not just the qualifying, things have not looked up for trap shooters over the last couple of years.
“Shooters want to do well,” Chenai said. “Sometimes you are caught in that feeling. We have an old guard in Trap like Sandu, Mansher, Randhir Singh. It will take a little time to overcome this.”
The Abhinav Bindra-led committee which was formed to review India’s medal-less run in Rio Olympics was also critical of trap shooters. In its review of Sandhu it wrote, “inflexible attitude of Sandhu is disappointing. There was no inclination to take the right path.”
Little seems to have changed. Sandhu too was guilty of throwing it away despite shooting well in Doha. He was in the leading pack till the final round of qualification but then fizzled out.
“We need a course correction right now to make the system more competitive,” Mansher Singh said. “The problem is bench strength. We need more shooters to contest in juniors and women.
“I think we were naive in our thinking. We should have opened the sport to others to get more competitors and raise the standard,” he added.
To be a shotgun shooter in India is tricky. The shotgun has to be imported and only an established and competitive shooter can import it. Rifle and pistol, however, can be bought in India.
Apart from the cost of the gun, the cost of cartridges is also high. Add the clay target to it and both combine for around Rs 100 per target. A daily session of 100 targets would cost around Rs 3 lakh per month.
“A lot of shotgun shooters are from families where shooting isn’t a professional sport,” Singh said. “They have a life after shooting. They go back to their business. Rifle-pistol is better at the grassroots level. There is a huge talent pool in rifle and pistol.”
Sandhu, a four-time Olympian, hails from a family of shooters. His father Gurbir Singh Sandhu was an Olympian and Arjuna award winner. His two uncles Randhir Singh and Parambir Singh were also Olympians.
For him, trap shooting has seen a steady decline. There have been reports of his rift with coaches and not following the plans but Sandhu said that momentum has been lost.
“We all feel like we have lost out especially because trap has been at the forefront,” Sandhu said. “The federation must analyse where we went wrong and why we did not qualify and corrective measures should be taken.
“We are not on the right track and we need to take stock,” he said. “Once momentum is lost, it becomes difficult to regain it. I am not saying it’s a disaster, we are still there but we need to put more careful thought into Trap because it’s a difficult sport.”
Trap is considered to be a marquee sport in shooting. Shooters cannot guess the direction of the target as it comes out of a computer-controlled machine. Out of the 25 targets, 10 are going right, 10 are going left and five go straight but in random order.
Singh said that India failed to bring in more juniors in trap shooting which led to the slowdown.
“We were a little short-sighted in not following the junior program as followed by rifle and pistol teams,” he said. “We were going with the old program until last year. We would pick top 18 shooters for the senior trials and that was spreading ourselves very thin.”
On the contrary, the rifle and pistol teams have done exceptionally well especially in winning Olympics quotas – 13. Among the winners are five teenagers including world number one Saurabh Chaudhary (10m air pistol) and Divyansh Panwar (10m air rifle). Manu Bhaker, the teen prodigy, also won a quota for India.
The National Rifle Association of India should be credited for working on the recommendations of the review committee and led the reforms in rifle and pistol shooting. Close to 5000 shooters turned up at the National Championships last year while the Shotgun Nationals this year saw only 300.
“We [in shotgun] should have done this four years back,” Singh said. “But we had different coaching set up. Foreign coaches come and go which limits their stint.”
Manavaditya Rathore, son of Rajyavardhan, is one of the younger shooters who was expected to rise quickly. Rathore was in Doha when India missed qualifying for the Olympics.
“All of us feel disappointed,” he said. “We want to see our fellow shooters standing there with the background of Tokyo. We had a good chance to win. But it wasn’t their day.”
Learning from rifle and pistol
Chenai had shot 120 to top the qualification in Doha but failed to repeat the performance in the final. He doesn’t make excuses for his loss but said a bit of luck was missing.
“You look for luck somewhere,” he said. “I have power in my glasses. The final started 45 minutes late and it was already getting dark. I could not make a connection with the light and the clay. The panic set in and then nobody can help you.”
The success of the rifle and pistol teams have left a lasting impression on everyone in the shooting fraternity. Chenai and Singh are of the opinion that shotgun shooters can learn from them to improve.
“What you have seen in the rifle and pistol is a revelation and the main reason is that the integration happened at the junior level,” Singh said. “The senior shooters who turned coaches were instrumental in making the difference. When you have a shooter from the system as a coach he knows what is happening. There are a lot of private coaches in rifle and pistol which we don’t have in shotgun.”
Chenai did not have a similar junior program when he began shooting.
“We had less emphasis on junior program,” he said. “We had to pay most of our way. My first nationals had 50 entries. I wasn’t a junior when Raninder Singh was president. The program he and NRAI have put now, the effort, money and time, you are seeing the results.”
“The juniors are structured. They are not pushed to a big competition where you don’t know how to handle it and come down with confidence. They send you to junior tournaments where you get a medal, get confidence and that is why these kids are shooting so well.”
At the ongoing Shotgun National Championships in New Delhi, 300 shooters participated in trap. The scores in qualifying were as high as 121. Rathore was in line to qualify for the senior final but missed out after a shoot-off. He went on to win the junior gold. Sandhu won the gold in the senior category.
Never before have such high scores been seen at the national-level competitions.
“These are maximum ever,” Singh said. “By the end of next year, you will find a new crop. Right now, they [juniors] are getting into positions where they can contest. They are beginning to believe they are as good as seniors.”
Chenai, who finished with a bronze medal at national championships, is optimistic that the turnaround will come for trap shooting in India.
“We tried our best and we are giving ourselves the chance,” he said. “But we haven’t been able to convert it to our advantage in every situation. We handled every situation well but haven’t converted that crucial moment which made the difference.
“We will come back. Ideal part of good teams going to the World Cups is what our country wants. Like in rifle and pistol, one or the other is performing every time, taking shifts. That’s what we need to do. Life will hammer you , send you a googly when you don’t want it but you got to handle it because it’s your job,” he added.