Gagan Narang had almost every medal to be won in shooting to his name by 2010 — Commonwealth Games and Asiad, ISSF World Cup and World Championship and World Cup final. He also had the world record for a full 600 points in qualification.
The one medal that every athlete covets — at the Olympic Games — was proving elusive. And that wait would come to an end as India’s most successful Olympics campaign began.
One of the most prolific rifle shooters in India, Narang’s wait for an Olympic podium was long and rough. But on July 30 2012, in his own words, he pushed the “ huge stone” off his shoulders as he won the bronze medal in men’s 10m air rifle at the Olympics.
It was India’s first medal at London 2012 — the edition that would prove to be record-breaking.
But for Narang, it probably meant more than just that: it was redemption after the narrow miss at Beijing 2008 and fulfillment of the promise he had always shown.
Four years earlier, when Abhinav Bindra won India’s first ever individual Olympic gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Games, it brought an all new focus to shooting.
As the nation celebrated a historic moment, there was heartbreak for fellow rifle shooter Narang who had missed out on the Olympics final by an agonizing 0.01 point. He was level on 595 out of 600 with five other shooters and was eliminated on countback.
This was the second time Narang had missed out on becoming an Olympic finalist after missing the cut at Athens 2004, where the then 21-year-old finished 12th and one point behind the top.
But Beijing hurt a lot more and the disillusionment after a successful previous few years was demotivating.
“I was in a state of shock and depression. When I came back home, I did not touch the gun and I would have these emotional outbursts. I could not sleep for a couple of days and I would wake up in my sleep,” Narang was quoted as saying by Olympic Channel.
Third time the charm
When the opportunity came again four years later, Narang didn’t falter. Third time was the charm, even when it looked like he had all but squandered his chance again. It was the intense preparation he had put in, in the lead up to the Games that saw him take a calculated gamble in London.
As per the rules then, the qualification score was added to the shooters’ overall tally, which meant it was not just about reaching the final but doing so with a good enough score to ensure you were in the podium race.
In the qualification series, the Indian didn’t shoot for the first 30 minutes but kept practicing instead to get into the right zone. His delayed start almost cost him as his final shot came with barely few seconds left on the clock. But it proved to be the right call as he reached the final with a solid 598 out of 600 points, finishing third behind the eventual gold and silver medallists.
This is how he described his gamble in an interview with Sportstar.
“I had told myself I would not hurry into the competition. At 9 o’clock the match started but until 9:30, I was still shooting sighters. Everyone was already into the 15th shot but I still hadn’t finished even my first. Some onlookers had started panicking. I told myself I wasn’t settled enough to start my match. At around 9:35, I started my competition shots. I shot a couple of 9s and after the second 9, I realised, if I have to be in the middle, I cannot shoot another 9. And if I need to be in a comfortable position of winning the medal, I need to shoot at least a 598. 598 was something I often shot in training but had never accomplished that in a competition. It never went beyond 597. It was something that I always aspired to shoot.
He finished with a solid performance 100, 100, 98, 100, 100 and 100 in the qualification phase as his strategy paid off.
Once he reached the final with a comfortable score, he plugged on music and chose to maintain his complete focus on the task at hand with no talk. Meanwhile, Abhinav Bindra had made a shock exit after finishing 16th with 594 points, which meant Narang was the only Indian in the final, being cheered on by a huge crowd of supporters at the range.
Even in the final, he was making sure to shoot in a calculated manner, he later said.
In third position, Narang started with a solid 10.7 and jumped to the second spot but a 9.7 meant he was back on third. He stayed in that position with four straight shots over 10.4 but then a 9.9 and 9.5 on the next two saw him drop off. China’s Wang Tao was hot on his heels and he couldn’t afford another shot under 10.
It could have been a case of so close, as is often the case of a sport like shooting, but the then 29-year-old pulled himself back up with a 10.3. Then he saved the proverbial best for the last moment, as he shot an impressive 10.7 to seal the deal.
He explained his final strategy saying, “Instead of trying for the first or second place, I tried to save my third position. Didn’t want to lose that spot. In the last three shots, I always shot after Wang finished. Because it might happen, that the other score motivates you to tweak your technique and execute the shot better. In all my last three shots, I scored more than him.”
His final score was 701.1, behind silver medallist Niccolo Campriani of Italy (701.5) and gold medallist Alin George Moldoveanu of Romania (702.1). He missed out on a silver medal by 000.4 points but those few nervy moments and his fightback should not be overlooked. It was the end of a long wait and a well-deserved Olympic medal was Narang’s.