The disposition is not upbeat, but the results could be positive. As a majority of the Beijing-bound marksmen touched down in the Capital past midnight on Wednesday following their final European sojourn before the Olympic Games, the mood was muted. But given that the country’s shooters have always stood up to big occasions, this could well be the dawn of a new era for Indian sport, and the country’s marksmen could be at the forefront of the change.
It all started at the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games, when Indian marksmen brought home a bagful of medals. Four years later, came the biggest boom when India swept a record tally at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, with pistol shooter Samaresh Jung bagging five gold medals and being declared the best sportsperson of the Games. Later that year, India's evergreen golden boy, Jaspal Rana, held centrestage at the Doha Asian Games by clinching three gold.
But the Olympics are a different ballgame, requiring extra effort and sweat. The Indians took a silent but quick step towards ultimate glory with double-trap marksman Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore emerging as the face of a bold new breed of shooters when he won silver at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
Medals and more medals ensued and in 2006, India had two world champions — trap marksman Manavjit Singh Sandhu and 10m air rifle exponent Abhinav Bindra. The two put India on top of the world when they clinched gold at the quadrennial World Championships in Zagreb, Croatia. A bagful of World Cup and Asian Championship medals have come from the guns and pistols of Gagan Narang, Rathore, Manavjit, Zorawar Singh and Mansher Singh. The most outstanding feat of the year came recently when double-trap exponent Ronjan Sodhi equalled two world records on way to clinching the World Cup gold at Belgrade. It's a pity he could not get an Olympic or hardship quota. He might not be boarding the flight to Beijing, but the 28-year-old is a huge medal prospect for the future.
A record number of nine Indian marksmen will be there in Beijing, rubbing shoulders with the best, but despite the none-too-impressive form of quite a few of them in the run-up to the Games, one shouldn't discount the fact that they have put in hours of practice in countries where the sun scalds and the cold numbs the bones. Above all, they have missed the comfort of their homes for months at a stretch.
The sun, hopefully, would shine brighter on them in Beijing.
Know your champions
RVS Rathore (Double-trap): The man doesn’t need introduction. The 38-year-old won India’s first individual silver medal at Athens in 2004. A Lt. Colonel in the Army and recipient of the prestigious Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna and Arjuna Award, the champion is going through a lean patch, partly because of a change in stance and his coaching under American expert Joshua Lakatos. But ‘Chilly’ knows just too well when and where to fire.
Gagan Narang (10m air rifle, 50m prone & 50m 3-pos): HE WAS the first marksman to bag an Olympic quota for the country when he won gold at the World Cup in Guangzhou (China) immediately after the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games. Bored of competing in just the 10m air rifle, he diversified into 50m rifle prone & 50m rifle 3-position. His recent showing in France, where he shot even higher than the world record, puts him in the category of favourites to win gold.
Abhinav Bindra (10m air rifle): THIS WILL be the third successive Olympics for the Punjab shooter. Bindra is one of the big names to have contributed to the popularity of the sport in the country. Of late, there has been talk of the Chandigarh-based rifle ace having outlived his utility following the back injury that forced him out for more than a year after the World Championships in Zagreb (Croatia) in 2006 where he also earned the Olympic quota. After missing the 2006 Doha Asian Games, the bespectacled champion is back.
Manavjit Singh Sandhu (Trap): The marksman from Punjab has got everything in his kitty — a World Championship title, Commonwealth and Asian Games medals, Arjuna Award and Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna. The only thing missing is an Olympic medal.
Mansher Singh (Trap): The veteran will be competing in his fourth Olympics (1984, 1996, 2004 and 2008) and is positive his past experience will hold in good stead.
Avneet Kaur Sidhu (10m air rifle, 50m prone): THE GIRL from Badal village in Punjab shot into the limelight by shooting a perfect 400 during the trials for the 2006 Commonwealth Games. She lived up to expectations in Melbourne by winning an individual silver (398) and team gold. The same year, she got the Olympic berth by finishing eighth (397) in the World Championship at Zagreb. But she hasn’t had a good run since then.
Sanjeev Rajput (50m rifle 3-pos): THIS IS Rajput’s maiden Olympics. The Navy marksman, who won bronze at the Melbourne Games and Doha Asian Games, got his quota at last year’s World Cup in USA. But this year, his best showing has been a score of 1161.
Samaresh Jung (10m air pistol): THE HERO of the Melbourne Games will be competing for the first time in the Olympics. He missed the quota for Athens narrowly but clinched the Beijing berth with a score of 682.1 at the 2007 Munich World Cup.
Anjali Vedpathak (50m prone, 10m air rifle): She is the one who has made shooting popular among women in the country. Even, Avneet idolises her. The Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratan recipient will be competing in her third consecutive Olympics.