Just a few days ago, at this very range in Rio, Jitu Rai broke the world record in practice. On Wednesday, he failed to reproduce any of that form as he yo-yoed between brilliant and indifferent shooting to end India’s realistic hopes of a shooting podium from its favourite medal sport.
Rai is ranked third in the world in the 50m men’s pistol and the kind of form he had displayed coming into these Games, India was looking up to him to deliver after the near loss of Abhinav Bindra. There is still London bronze medalist Gagan Narang in the fray in 50m prone and three-position, who kindles some hope on account of his past performance, and one can pray that the others may turn in a maverick win, but hopes are fading fast.
Rai did realize just what was at stake and what was expected from him. “I have let my country down. Aisa lag raha hai ki maine apne desh ke saath dhokha kiya hai (I feel I have betrayed my country),” was his emotional pained admission later.
There was some wind at the range in the morning and Rai’s shots were drifting a wee bit to the left as he opened his account in the qualifying. Shooters must fire 60 shots in an hour and 30 minutes. Despite the wind, Rai soon seemed to be in cruise mode, turning in 9s with regularity and an odd ten thrown in to further buttress his qualification chances. The 500 mm target with the 10th ring measuring 50 mm, is not evaluated for decimals in the qualifying and a 10 is the highest possible score from a shot.
In his third series of ten shots, Rai registered a disastrous 6 and an 8, to cause a minor flutter in the Indian camp. The anxiety was soon eased, though, when he came back strongly and was comfortably in the top eight headed for the finals. Rai does like to take his time and with four shots still left and five minutes on the clock, he seemed to get a bit flustered. An 8 and a 9 followed. Then another 8 before the disastrous 7, on his penultimate shot which sealed things against him. He finished at 12, four places off the cut off.
It was a disastrous run from a man who was in hot form and expected to finally break India’s medal drought in these Games. When a shot falls below expectation your correspondent’s heart quails in the stands, one can only imagine the stress that the man on the spot undergoes. The other Indian in the fray, Prakash Nanjappa, had been diagnosed with a debilitating brain clot in 2014 at a tournament in Spain. That had set rumours abuzz that his Olympic quota may be given to another. Nanjappa made it to 25 in the qualification standings and that is a credit to his grit for recovering enough to compete at this level. However, the man in the spotlight today was Rai and he went on to join the ranks of many Indians who do manage world-beating performances at other events but seem to come apart under the pressure induced by a billion hopes from the Indian Olympics contingent.