Randhir Singh is gearing up to attend his 15th Summer Olympics, and will when he sets foot in Rio de Janeiro next month. His first Games was Helsinki in 1952, travelling there with father Bhalendra Singh, who went in his capacity as an International Olympic Committee member.
Goad him to paint a picture of that bygone era, and he points out he was only seven when he went to the Finnish capital. Now 70, the former Indian Olympic Association secretary-general and IOC member looks forward to witnessing another spectacle in Rio. However, ‘Raja Saheb’ has seen shooting grow from being the pursuit of royalty to that of an elite few and those from army to today’s bunch from a cross-section of the society.
Around the time Randhir was being introduced to the biggest stage, Indian shooting was also taking baby steps. Harihar Banerjee and Souren Choudhary are the first Indian shooters to compete in an Olympics, at Helsinki. The results were modest.
Banerjee also competed at the 1956 Melbourne Games, where Haricharan Shaw was the second entrant. Banerjee was also the first to participate in the World Championships, at Oslo in 1952.
Those were trying times. Governments, state or centre, were not attuned to the idea of shooting as a sports discipline.
Olympians then had to buy their clothing for the Games, and even buy dollars directly from the Reserve Bank of India. Nothing was free. “We bought our uniform, shirts and ties from a shop in Connaught Place called Devichand,” says Randhir Singh, the 1978 Asiad trap champion.
Practicing and organising national meets were big hurdles. Ranges were set up temporarily. Five trap machines used to come from the private range of the Maharaja of Bikaner, Dr Karni Singh. They had to be set up at Delhi’s Parade Grounds for the nationals. The rifle men gathered at the Nicholson range in Delhi Cantonment for their nationals; they used to shoot at stationary targets till 1982, when the world had already shifted to turning targets.
In those years, shooting survived on the generosity of maharajas and aristocrats. Dr Karni Singh was one such benefactor. Many shooters, including Randhir, a six-time Olympian, benefited. Pranab Kumar Roy, part of the quintet that won silver at the 1982 New Delhi Asian Games and included Randhir, Karni Singh and Gurbir Singh Sandhu, remembers those days. “There were no ranges then. The only one that was in working condition was in Bikaner run by Maharaj,” Roy says. “He was kind enough to loan us cartridges and also not charge us for using his range.”
Randhir says paucity of imported cartridges and shortage of clay targets meant they had to use Indian ordnance for practice, and they sometimes failed to break the targets. “We used to add 10-12 to the total targets we broke in practice with the factory cartridges to make an estimation of our score. Sometimes we had to make our own clay targets.”
Duty and strict rules on imports were other roadblocks. Roy had to stave off Central Bureau of Investigation sleuths after importing a Perazzi gun worth $700 in 1972. “They wanted to know how I raised that amount in just two days. I told them I borrowed,” Roy, whose coal mine North Brook in Burdwan, West Bengal, was nationalised, said. He got away paying a fine of `20.
However, staging the 1982 Asian Games brought an end to some of these tribulations. Import duty on weapons and ammunition was done away with on the initiative of Rajiv Gandhi. “It changed everything for us. Now, Arjuna awardees get to import a number of weapons,” Randhir says.
Still, a few had to endure hardship. One story of grit and early struggle is that of shooting queen, Anjali Bhagwat, the first Indian shooter to qualify for the final of an Olympic event, at Sydney 2000.
“It was fun though,” she says. “We were doing okay. The 1995 SAF Games (in Chennai) was my first international. I won three medals.” That year, she got her first shooting kit courtesy Bollywood star Nana Patekar, and her own weapon, an Anschultz rifle, courtesy sponsorship from the Abhyankars.
Shooting had entered public consciousness when an 18-year-old Delhi collegian set the pistol competition alight at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada, winning the centre fire gold and silver in the 10m air pistol.
Jaspal Rana’s was a story with a difference. Winning the centre fire gold at the 1994 Hiroshima Asian Games as well, the boy next door became a star. “I was given the ownership of the pistol, which was owned by SAI. It was Walther GSP, model no: 1237509. I shot with it in the 2006 Asian Games too,” he says. Jaspal won all three of India’s gold medals in Doha.
But his only Olympic appearance was Atlanta 1996, where he finished 45th in the 50m pistol event and 29th in air pistol. “Both weren’t my favourite events, but I gave it my all. I have no regrets,” he says.
But he faced problems as the lone voice of dissent against officialdom. “I was given bad ammunition in the 2002 Asiad. Someone did it deliberately. But that is okay. I was not the man to shut up against wrong then, I will not shut up today or ever.”
Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s trap silver at Athens in 2004 was the game-changer. Abhinav Bindra’s gold medal four years later put shooting on a pedestal.
Today’s smooth ride for shooters is not necessarily an advantage, say Anjali and Jaspal, both coaches now.
“Government and sponsors are giving these shooters more than what is required. Plus, there is no accountability. It will only harm our sport. We are spoon-feeding them, and they will lose the hunger to win,” says Jaspal.
Anjali says: “They forget that all those who are there to help them can only be of help till they walk up to their shooting points. Looking back at the support staff after a bad round won’t help them.”