Decades of hard work and millions of 0.22 bullets later, four shots make or break an Olympian’s chances.
First, there is a dream and then follows sweat. Now, dreams have a remarked proclivity for obfuscation, for getting clouded as the vagaries of life twist them out of our control, turn them into nightmares. Most of us give up on our dreams.
Since 1997, Gagan Narang has been dreaming of Olympic glory. Since 2003, when he first represented the country at a multi-discipline Games (Afro-Asian), he has been probed, analysed, criticised and lauded. That can’t be easy to handle.
Your dreams and mine break in the limited confines of our worlds; there is no such succour for those shouldering the hopes of a billion. Narang’s dream of Olympic glory in the 50m prone rifle, his favourite event, shattered here on Friday as the London 10m rifle bronze medallist’s last four shots played truant.
“This was the event I was preparing for and I had a good feeling about it. I fought very hard till the end and was in it till the 55th shot – the last four shots put me out of the final. I gave my best, I gave all I had,” a visibly moved Narang said after he finished 13th, five places off the top-eight cut off.
It’s human nature to look for reason in disaster; to find that bit of learning which will reduce the chance of repeating that failure. But what do you do when it’s something as whimsical as wind? “The wind was tricky today, sometimes blowing, sometimes not.” But knowing that back home there are clueless pundits who will rip at any presumed excuse, he hastily added: “I didn’t miss too many shots with the wind today but the last four shots cost me.”
It was a five-minute interaction – Olympic rules allow for a mixed zone where athletes can be confronted by the press the moment their event is over. Now, Narang didn’t have to talk to us. It’s easy to push past and suffer alone, it isn’t comfortable to share one’s naked angst. To try and speak logically to people who really can’t ever totally empathise with what the athlete goes through. To answer stupid questions. But then, these people are Olympians, they are made of different mettle.
“One 9.5 that I shot… the wind was a lot on that, I think everybody shot a 9.5 on that shot, the ones on my left and right. It baffled me. I didn’t understand why that happened. That’s like one point gone already!” He grudgingly concedes us a peek into his agony. But it’s all usually a whirl after one has been firing 60 times in 50 minutes at a target of which only the central 10.4 mm count at this level. “I will have to go back and think what exactly happened. I will have to run it through my mind again.”
He had it all in place. He had done whatever was possible coming into the event. “Strategically I chose another event to qualify in because I would obviously carry excess baggage from the last Olympics, having won a medal in the air rifle. That is the reason I chose prone.”
He rambles on, almost as if talking to himself: “Prone was a new event for me and I left no stone unturned. In prone, the ammunition is very important, if you don’t have that and a good barrel you can’t run your race with your hands tied. I struggled a lot to find good ammunition and the amount of testing and the ammunition that I had, it all fell in place but I guess the last four shots…”
Those are four shots that will stalk him for a while. They will haunt his dreams now. Instead of a bit of shiny metal that means the world to the world, he will now have those four shots.
The best bit? He is brave enough to carry on. “I would like to shoot more. This is definitely not the end for me.” Not that he has a choice. “I have another event, though it is not my main event (50m rifle three-position).” Hope, that whimsical, capricious fantastical emotion stays his cornerstone. “If I have a good day and am shooting well in all three events… it is just about putting it together on one day.”
He has two days to go for that. In the meanwhile, he has four shots to get over.