Time running out for pistol shooters to book flight to Paris

A mind-boggling 1200 shooters participated in men’s air pistol event at the Senior National Championships in Bhopal culminating in the final on Thursday after 11 days of competition in just one event. The scores in the qualification round and final were world class — as high as the World Championships in Baku this year. Encouraging it might seem just seven months before the Paris Olympics, but the reality is different. There is still an Olympic quota to be won from the event and there is no guarantee that such high scores will be replicated in the next international competition, which will be a Paris Olympic qualifier in Jakarta in January.

Saurabh Chaudhary in action.

Out of eight quotas for pistol events at the Paris Olympics, the Indian shooters have managed to grab just three so far. The big struggle has been in air pistol events where of the four Paris quotas on offer, only one (Sarabjot Singh) has come India’s way. The remaining three have to be sealed over the next two qualifiers and it will be a big ask to grab all of them.

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Going into the Tokyo Olympics, India had all four quotas in their kitty and it was the air pistol team, including the mixed pair of Saurabh Chaudhary and Manu Bhaker that was being looked at as medal prospects. What happened in Tokyo is a different story altogether, but it will be no exaggeration to surmise that in pistol shooting, especially in air pistol, India’s performance in international events in the last two seasons has left a lot to be desired. The Asian Games showing of young shooters Palak Gulia and Esha Singh — they had a gold-silver finish in women’s air pistol — though has stoked hopes that they can win the two quota places.

The men’s air pistol team has also been inconsistent. Both Sarabjot, who won quota at the Asian Championships last month, and young Shiva Narwal — the most promising shooter at the moment — are still work in progress. The two big names — Tokyo Olympians Chaudhary and Abhishek Verma — are struggling to even make it to the India team. It’s a complete turnaround from the Tokyo cycle when these two had swept the gold medals in the World Cup series in the buildup to the Games.

It has been learnt that NRAI high performance director Pierre Beauchamp had raised concerns over the performance of pistol shooters earlier this year after the World Cup in Bhopal in March and had a talk with the top brass of the federation.

“He wanted certain changes in the coaching set-up. He thought the top shooters were not getting enough rest and recovery time and it was adding to the pressure and that a plan was needed to be in place for better management of their training and competition schedule,” according to NRAI officials aware of the development.

However, it seems none of that has been implemented so far.

After the debacle at the Tokyo Games, NRAI did not retain foreign coach Pavel Smirnov and appointed two-time Olympic medallist Munkhbayar Dorjsuren in his place. Samresh Jung, who was part of the coaching set-up for Tokyo, was retained as chief national coach.

“There has to be planning to see that the shooters are not burnt out. After Tokyo, the top shooters should not have competed for six to seven months and should have started gradually. But they were back shooting at trials within 15 days. Was there any plan to make sure that top shooters like Chaudhary and Verma were monitored as they made their way back?” said a coach.

While there is not much time to rectify things, NRAI has reached out to Verma to provide any support of the high-performance team. Confirming the development, Verma said he was happy to receive any support. “NRAI senior vice-president Kalikesh Singh Deo and other officials spoke to me and asked me if I would like to work with HPD Pierre Beauchamp. I am thankful because and I am looking forward to some sessions with him,” he said.

“My focus is on Paris. After Tokyo, I took a break in 2022 and then I started from scratch. I changed my weapon, technique, everything. In Tokyo, I shot my lowest score in a long time and I wanted to experiment and innovate to improve for Paris,” said Verma.

Verma has been working on his own. “I decided to train myself. Though I did look for a mentor in India and outside but foreign coaches are very costly. I am not in TOPS anymore, so it is difficult,” said Verma, adding that his accommodation and training at the Karni Singh range is taken care of.

Asked whether he would have liked things to be different after Tokyo, Verma said, “One thing NRAI could look to do is to let some of top shooters some leeway after major events for introspection, exempt them from a few trials and allow them to avail the services of the foreign coaches even when they are not part of the team,” he said.

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