If there is one sport which has evolved over the past decade, leaving every other discipline behind in India, it is shooting. Be it the global body — the International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF) — which has dramatically changed the format to make it more viewer friendly or iconic figures like Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore and Abhinav Bindra, who have created a euphoria seen nowhere else in the world, Indian youngsters are increasingly looking towards shooting to build their careers.
The Incheon Asian Games just days away, it is the shooters who are expected to reap a rich harvest at the quadrennial event. If today India is competing and winning medals against the mighty Chinese, Korean and Kazakhs, it has to do with the nuances of the sport being passed on from one generation to another.
If the likes of Malaika Goel, barely 16, Apurvi Chandela and Ayonika Paul are winning medals in some of the biggest international competitions, it has to do with their grounding in the sport from an early age.
The likes of Bindra, Gagan Narang and Manavjit Singh will be expected to win medals, but expectations will also be high from the young crop after their superlative performance in Glasgow.
Who would have thought a school dropout would bag silver in her first international competition at age 16. But Malaika, who will be 17 — and probably have a medal to show from the Asian Games — on October 23, came from nowhere to corner glory in Glasgow, beating her idol, Heena Sidhu, the former world No 1, in air pistol. She will again be there at Incheon as part of a formidable triumvirate in air pistol.
Signs of change
Perhaps, it is a sign of change that the likes of London Olympic Games silver medallist Vijay Kumar has not found a place in his pet event, rapid-fire pistol, or Ronjan Sodhi, the best double-trap marksman along with Rathore India has produced, is not in the Games squad. And, who can forget Jitu Rai, hailing from a village in Nepal, bringing accolades to India.
If one has to cite a rags-to-riches story, one shouldn’t look beyond the Gurkha Rifles naib subedar based in Lucknow. In just six months, Jitu has brought recognition to men’s 10m air pistol, which hitherto was known for bringing few, if any, titles for the country. Three back-to-back World Cup medals — in Munich and Maribor World Cups — a Commonwealth Games gold in 50m pistol and a World Championship silver along with a Rio Olympic quota place is something Jitu wouldn’t have dreamt of one-and-a-half years back when he was a struggler on the national scene.
He is the country’s best hope to counter the Chinese and South Korean challenge, particularly Jin Jong-oh who will be formidable on home turf after his World Championship title in Granada (Spain), where he pushed Jitu to the second spot.
A different era
It seems an era since the bespectacled Bindra strode on the national scene, surprising everyone, except himself and his parents, with his precocious talent. A journey which has seen him compete as the youngest participant at 15 at the 1998 Commonwealth Games, culminated this year with the announcement that he would not return for a sixth CWG. But then he had achieved one of the only two goals remaining in his life --- an individual Commonwealth Games gold in 10m air rifle. Incheon could be his chance to fulfil the only wish remaining — an Asian Games gold — though he had won a silver at Guangzhou in 2010.
Indian shooters’ tryst with the Asian Games has been one of individual brilliance. Jaspal Rana, perhaps a trendsetter when he clinched gold at the 1994 Hiroshima Asian Games, took it upon himself to bring a clutch of gold — three to be precise — at the 2006 Doha Asian Games when everyone else in the contingent was firing blanks. In 2010, at Guangzhou, Ronjan succeeded where everyone else failed in pursuit of gold.
This time, Jitu is perfectly equipped to champion Indian shooting’s cause. With the 27-year-old enrolled in two events — 10m air pistol and free pistol — and the marksman in peak form, a chance of a grand double is on the cards.