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The Rediff Special/Ashish Magotra

Shooting the stars

July 12, 2004

India's shooters are among the best in the world despite the lack of proper coaching and facilities. It is not out of choice, but because of compulsion.

Till recently, it was Chinese and South Korean shooters who were regarded best at hitting the bull's eye, but of late Indian shooters have started to make a name for themselves on the international scene.

Shown above are the facilities available to shooters at SAI, Bangalore. Given below are the facilities available in Athens -- Note the computerised points system and the automated target system
For the first time eight Indians have qualified for the Olympics through the Olympic quota system. Which basically means they earned a place at the Athens Games by virtue of emerging amongst the best from World and Asian championship meets and other major events. This will be the largest turnout of Indian shooters at an Olympics -- previously, India's representation in shooting was just one at any Games -- and virtually each of them has a chance of winning a medal.

These shooters are honing their skills under the tutelage of chief coach Sunny Thomas, Wajid Ali, Col Jaswant Singh, A K Bala Shamugal, V Dharmalingam (pistol coach) who are nothing more than glorified managers, knowing absolutely nothing about the intricacies of the sport.

That is the opinion of most of the shooters, presently training at the Sports Authority of India centre in Bangalore.

Anjali Bhagwat, who has won gold medals at the World Cup, Commonwealth Games, and Asian Games; Rajyawardhan Rathore, Jaspal Rana, Kuheli Gangulee and Abhinav Bindra have established themselves on the world stage but the odds against which they are training in their quest of further glory makes you wonder how better these athletes could really be.

They have no back-up teams to assist them. The cricket team, for instance, has a coach, a trainer and a physio; from time to time there is a psychologist and a bowling coach to work with them.

The Chinese shooters receive individual treatment at every tournament. All their other needs (ammunition, guns, shooting ranges, other equipment) are taken care of by the government. They only need to concentrate on shooting. In comparison, Indian shooters have to be their own coaches; any technical changes have to be self-introduced.  

Anjali Vedpathak, Suma Shirur and Deepali Deshpande are busy planning and funding their own training. They have undertaken at their own peril short training camps under expert foreign coaches in European countries.

You may be surprised that the National Rifle Association of India has not even hired a proper coach to train the abovementioned Olympic medal hopefuls. Anjali, Suma Shirur and Deepali Deshpande are relying on the army-hired Russian coaches for assistance in the run-up to the Games. At this late hour, with just over a month to go for the mega event, the federation says it is still trying to look for the 'right' coach.

There is a standing joke among the shooters: it is about the time when Colonel Jaswant Singh accompanied the team abroad for a tournament as coach. They say he did not know that the shooters need a sling to support the arm while shooting. It was only when he saw the other shooters wearing slings did he turn to an Indian participant and ask him whether he had the jacket with the sling!

True, the common man does not know much about the intricacies of shooting. But to have a coach who doesn't know the fundamentals of the sport is disgusting.

Things don't get much better for the pistol shooters. The points system is still manual. Above: The SAI Campus. Left: The Athens set-up

More sordid, say India's Olympic medal hopefuls, is the way thing are conducted at the SAI campus in Bangalore. Liquor is prohibited at the campus, but almost all shooters says you can find not just a bottle or two but crates of twelve 750 ml bottles of rum and whisky in the coaches' room.

"Raid the campus and you will see the truth," they say, adding, "test the coaches breath during the day and you will definitely find traces of alcohol."

The shooters do not want to be named for obvious reasons, because revealing all might lead to an end to their careers.

It is said politics and sports can never be told apart. It is true for most sports in India and shooting as well.

"How," the shooters argue, "is it that Abhinav Bindra gets grants worth two crores from the government to go and train in Germany and take part in tournaments abroad while the rest of the shooters have nothing to show?"

Then they answer the question themselves.

"Abhinav is a talented shooter. He is very consistent and good about what he does. But that does not mean others cannot be as good. The only reason he gets the grants is because of the connections he has. He is related to I S Bindra, the president of the Punjab Olympic Association."

Manoj Kumar, a young shooter from the Army, tallied 595 out of 600 during the National trials in the 10 metre Air Rifle, the event in which Abhinav will participate in at Athens. That score would earn a medal in the Olympics. But while Manoj trains in India, Abhinav gets the best in Germany.

This is just a case point. It is not an attempt to belittle Abhinav, but it shows the feeling of resentment other shooters harbour towards the system.

Some like Kuheli Gangulee, who has been a shooter for almost 20 years, believes "it is best to just do your job and not complain".

"It is very easy to complain and find fault with others. But if you are good nobody can stop you. I have seen people destroy their careers by thinking too much about the state of shooting and complaining. But for now it makes more sense to do your best and deal with the system once you are done with shooting," she says, adding, "I am not scared of anyone. But I prefer to bide my time."

Adaptability counts for much in shooting, where even a few points can be the difference between winning a medal and not finishing among in the top rung. When Indian shooters go abroad they compete in ranges that are completely electronic. But at home it is all manual. There are automated systems lying in Delhi but they are used very rarely. The problem is that whenever the shooters want to practice with the automated system, the officials start trying to set it and by the time they succeed it is time for the shooters to head home.

The shooters though are full of praise for the facilities available in Hyderabad. They say the National Games and the Afro-Asian Games held in the city have helped develop the facilities to world class levels.

"Its almost like you are somewhere abroad."

Most of the shooters lament the lack of infrastructure in most states.

Coach Sunny Thomas too agrees that infrastructure is poor. He explains: "This is India; everything takes time here. They [the shooters] are used to what they are getting. If you give them everything that will be a personal surprise."

The shooters say the BJP-led NDA government did a lot for the sport and hope that the Congress-led United Alliance maintains the same support.

When Sunil Dutt was elected to the Lok Sabha the first thing he asked was a ministry where he actually had a chance to make a difference. He was granted his wish and given charge of the Ministry for Sports and Youth Affairs. Now it remains to be seen whether he can actually fulfill his promise and set matters right.

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