New Delhi, Dec. 24: Hitting the target with monotonous regularity, Indian shooters' dominance in a phenomenal 2019, at times, made world events look like domestic tourneys.
At the forefront of the incredible showing was an extremely talented youth brigade that knew no fear. Some of them studied hard, did their homework, appeared for exams, practised harder and then shot, to win.
While some dominated the range first and wrote their papers later. And then, they were back at the range again, working on their game to continue what has been an unprecedented upswing.
In terms of overall medals, the tally stood at 21 gold, six silver and three bronze as India topped all the Rifle-Pistol World Cups and Finals this year. The number of Olympic quotas, which now stands at a record 15, is not only a refection of the country's rapid rise in the sport over the last one year but also sets up the shooters nicely for a record haul in Tokyo Olympics, after the meltdown at Rio de Janeiro.
Indian shooting's best show at the Olympics remains the two medals won at London in 2012, but if the shooters' exploits in recent months are anything to go by, the country can easily emulate or better that in Tokyo.
Blessed😇 pic.twitter.com/TeBGsiO1CX— Manu Bhaker (@realmanubhaker) December 26, 2019
However, the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI), having endured an unpleasant experience in Rio, is far from basking in its shooters' glory yet. Though the association is impressed with the performance that may have exceeded expectations, instead of celebrating, it is looking at ways to protect them from "exploitation and distractions".
That called for taking some very tough decisions, including banning the shooters from signing any fresh commercial deals in the run-up to the Olympic Games, a move that may not have found favours with many.
NRAI president Raninder Singh said even the shooters' parents will have to sign a bond that no exploitation will be done for "financial gains", something that has been termed infringement of personal space. Besides the shooters, the federation has also worked extensively towards bringing the sport to where it is today, and it doesn't want all their hard work to go waste in the Olympic year.
From drawing a blank at Rio to winning a bagful of medals almost everywhere in recent times, it will be wise to say that Indian shooting has come of age, and a lot of credit for the turnaround must go to the NRAI. Paying heed to the corrective measures suggested in the Abhinav Bindra-led committee's scathing report, which was filed after the disastrous outing in the last Olympics, the NRAI changed Indian shooting's attitude, its policies and practices, and it is paying rich dividends for a while now.
With the help of people like Jaspal Rana and Smaresh Jung, the federation has effectively managed its junior programme, leading to the emergence of talents like Manu Baker, Saurabh Chaudhary, Divyansh Singh Panwar and Elavenil Valarivan.
Thanks to the their exploits as well as some telling contributions from seniors such as Sanjeev Rajput and Tejaswini Sawant, India topped the medal charts in all the World Cups this year.
India dominated the 10m field consistently, with Apurvi Chandela, Anjum Moudgil and Elavenil Valarivan finishing the year as world number one, two and three respectively.
But nobody jumped as big as Rajput, who came out of obscurity to clinch the men's 50-metre rifle 3-position silver and the Olympic quota place in the Rio World Cup. Sanjeev moved from the 75th spot to eighth.
Also, nine medals, including five golds at the September World Cup in Rio and three in the year-end prestigious World Cup Finals in Putian, China, suggest that the sport is headed in the right direction.
As the year drew to a close, unheralded 18-year-old Zeena Khitta of Himachal Pradesh claimed the air rifle gold medal at the Nationals ahead of the established Mehuli Ghosh and Apurvi Chandela. Likewise, Ayushi Podder won the team silver in 50m rifle 3 positions event at the Asian Shooting Championships in Doha. Their success also displayed the depth of the talent pool in Indian shooting.
Shooting all them Golds down!#TeamIndia #Shooting x🥇🥇🥈🥉— NOC India (@WeAreTeamIndia) December 3, 2019
Indian markswomen, Mehuli Ghosh, Shriyanka Sadagi and Shreya Agrawal bag Gold in the Women's 10m Air Rifle Team event, as well as all three medals in their Individual event! Just amazing #Kudos @OfficialNRAI 👏 https://t.co/S3qvZH1sEA
The federation is hoping that its trailblazers carry their form into Tokyo, but before that, the shooters will also have opportunities to win a few more medals and boost their morale further. One of them is the International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF) World Cup in New Delhi in February.
While its shooters set the range ablaze, India vehemently objected to the Commonwealth Games Federation's (CGF) move to exclude the sport from the roster for 2022 Birmingham edition. Refusing to go back on its decision despite pressure from India and the International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF), the CGF last month made it clear that there was no plan to have a Commonwealth Championship of shooting in India during the 2022 Birmingham Games to make up for the sport's axing from the multi-sport showpiece.