JAKARTA: When shooting was providing all the medals for India from Palembang, a few of the journalists had decided to joke about the field in Asian Games. “Somebody has to tell them they are not supposed to win gold medals here. This is not the Commonwealth Games where all they have to do is turn up.” Terrible joke, but the sentiment was true. While athletics delivered on its promise, not many expected the shooters — they won as many gold and silver this time as the last two editions put together — to find the bullseye on a consistent basis.
Especially, the younger lot. The likes of Saurabh Chaudhary (16), Lakshay (19), Shardul Vihan (15) showed adequate cojones to beat men more than twice their age. So how did India’s next-gen do it? “You would have to go back 3-4 years to find out why there are a lot of young shooters shooting excellently,” National Rifle Association of India chief Raninder Singh says.
“The Ministry of Home Affairs loosened its norms a bit with a notification on August 2014 which allowed shooters as young as 12 to hold firearms. That ruling has helped a clutch of young shooters come to the fore in the last 2 -3 years.” Saurabh, the men’s 10m air pistol champion, was one who benefited from the rule change. He would train at home with the one weapon he was allowed to carry thanks to the exemption. Once young turks started showing promise at the age-group level, NRAI showed initiative by dedicating a significant chunk of its operating budget towards agegroup shooters.
“We are spending close to 60% of our budget on youngsters and our policies have been vindicated,” Raninder explains. Shooting wasn’t the only sport that punched above its station. Table tennis, too, performed admirably. It was arguably the nation’s feelgood story. It delivered only two bronze, but considering the field, this ‘was as good as the Olympics and better than the World Championships’ as coach Massimo Costantini said after Sharath Kamal and Manika won a historic mixed bronze. The two medals are the result of a process which began shortly after below-par returns from Glasgow at the Commonwealth Games in 2014.
“After Glasgow, we knew things had to change,” Sharath says. “We got in a new coach and the work for this year really started then.” Money was pumped in, a new crop of players led by G Sathiyan and Manika started winning at the international level before Costantini was brought in for a second innings. In isolation, Rio was a failure, but it taught more lessons to the management and the players.
Cash flow and exposure trips
An action plan was formulated to lay the groundwork for Sharath & Co to overtake the likes of England and Singapore in rankings before Gold Coast came around. Money was thrown around like confetti at a kid’s birthday party as players, young and senior pros, went for exposure trips. The federation wasted a lot of money, according to an insider, but in the process, they helped players develop faster. Sharath narrates an incident that best captures how the Table Tennis Federation of India spent their way to try and catch the likes of China and South Korea.
“There was a 23-member exposure trip which went to Korea before the Games. I was resting up and did not go. After coming across this party, Dimitrij Ovtcharov (Germany’s World No 2) messaged me to say India’s TT budget for the Korea trip was Germany’s annual budget.” Ovtcharov was exaggerating a bit, but the whole point of the remark was some of the world’s leading teams sitting up and taking notice. When China, too, paid the Indian team a few complicates, the players knew they had an outside chance of medalling. “During our exposure trip to China in August, we were routinely demolishing regional teams, so the national team called us for a couple of practice matches.
After the end of that session, they applauded us,” Sharath remembers. The 35-year-old from Chennai is so enthused by the recent successes he has put talks of retirement on hold. “I don’t know whether I will get the motivation to play the next Commonwealth Games but Tokyo I will definitely be there. Table tennis is at a very good space right now.” Some of the younger athletes will leave Jakarta with happy memories.
The likes of Vismaya Koroth (21, who ran against Asian champion Salwa Naser in the anchor leg of the women’s 4x400 final), Harshita Tomar (16, sailor who won bronze), Amit Panghal (22, who took down the Olympic champion in light flyweight boxing) and the women’s compound team (average age 20.3, who ran South Korea to within an inch of their lives) all enriched their reputations in two weeks. What comes next for the shooters, table tennis players and a few of the younger lot is anybody’s guess. However, one thing is for sure. Expectation has replaced hope. firstname.lastname@example.org