Five twenty-five days. That’s the amount of time left for the shooting events to begin at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It may seem ample time, but it’s not much for professional athletes looking to get a head start and make it count.
So when the ISSF World Cup is held in Delhi from February 23 to 27, top guns from around the world will be keen to bag quota places and kick-start their preparations. This is the second competition after the 2018 World Championships offering quotas for Tokyo.
For Indians, it is a huge opportunity to make home advantage count. This is something that national coach Jaspal Rana has in mind. “All the countries will be sending their best shooters. It will be a tough fight. It is important for each and every country to win quota places early. It will be difficult, but the shooters are ready,” Rana said. There are 34 Indians in the fray. Of them, 23 will be competing for the medals and qualifying spots. The rest will try to better their scores and be in Olympic reckoning.
The last time an Olympic quota event was held in the country was in 2016, where India had captured four berths. It should be noted that the hosts had more participants then and there were more events. It was also one of the last events that offered quotas, which meant some of the best were not in the picture, having sealed places earlier. That makes this upcoming event a massive task, especially for seasoned stars like Tejaswini Sawant, whose passion for the sport has seen her beat odds and make a comeback of sorts. “Everyone wants to win an Olympic medal. I want to better my personal best. I’m focussed on my shooting,” the 38-year-old, who competes in 50m rifle 3 position, told this newspaper.
When the Indians lined up for the 2016 qualifying event, they had a fairly experienced line-up, with stars who had seen the best and the worst. There is no dearth of experience this time either when one looks at former World No 1 Heena Sidhu, Sanjeev Rajput, Tejaswini and Rahi Sarnobat. The only difference is there are several first-timers. “Youngsters are not accustomed to performing in front of home crowds. It will be a new experience, with the fans rallying for them. But despite their inexperience, they are quite talented. It won’t be a surprise if they win medals and secure quotas,” Rana said.
Youth to the fore
A lot of them like Manu Bhaker, Saurabh Chaudhary may be just school goers, but they have punched above weight in recent times to make rivals take them seriously. For them, this event will be a major chapter in their overall development. “Their scores have been amazing. I believe everyone will be do well. Maybe, a few new faces might falter but that will be a learning curve for them. I hope the youngsters can excel and gain some experience,” said coach Joydeep Karmakar, who finished fourth in 50m rifle prone at the 2012 Olympics.
There’s no reason why the youngsters can’t step up. Most of them have come through the junior ranks under the watch of Rana. Most of them have rubbed shoulders with the best in the business at the junior level.
Buoyed by the good returns of 2018, rifle shooter Deepak Kumar is geared up to embrace the test. The 31-year-old, who won a silver in the Asiad, is looking to cash in on his good form. “My preparations have gone well. I’m positive. From my side, I’m trying to ensure that there are no loose ends,” he said. Given that the top four shooters in the world in his section (10m air rifle) have already secured quotas, the World No 7 has a healthy chance of joining them. A glance at the rankings shows that Deepak is the only Indian who features in the top 10 in the Olympic events for men, a statistic that speaks for itself.
A quota here could be a life-changer for many of these athletes. Apart from the valuable prep time, they are likely to get more attention from all corners. They will be handed preference for TOP scheme. Take for instance Anjum Moudgil, who has already secured a quota for India. The rifle shooter will be part of the event but she won’t be under any pressure. Her preparations had begun after the day she secured the quota in the World Championships last year in September. Her coach Deepali Deshpande revealed that she had the luxury to try out new things. She is naturally more relaxed and just looking to shoot high scores in her bid to be part of the Olympics. “She is highly motivated. Just because she has won the quota does not mean she will take this lightly,” Deepali said.
This is the first World Cup in the calendar of qualifying events. There will be more World Cups, more chances as the season continues. Continental championships will also offer quotas. Everyone is aware that this is just the beginning and the focus for Indians is to get into the zone and gain some momentum. Good numbers in terms of scores could help trigger quotas in the near future. “I have zero expectations. I just want them to perform the way they have been during training and get good scores,” Rana noted.
In the Rio Olympics in 2016, a total of 12 shooters had represented India. It proved to be a disastrous campaign with the contingent returning empty-handed. With the rise of many shooters in recent times, the sport has become highly competitive. “This World Cup is not just about medals and quotas. The best of the best will be going to the Olympics. No one will be sitting on their quota-winning performance. They have to be on par with the best,” added Karmakar.
The way the Indians perform in New Delhi could be a strong indicator of how far they have come, especially on the grand stage which has its own share of pressure and expectations.