In this, the second edition of the ongoing Open Olympic Conversations, BORIA MAJUMDAR talks to shooter GAGAN NARANG, India’s first medal winner at London 2012, his coach and mentor STANISLAV LAPIDUS, and India’s hockey coach MICHAEL NOBBS, who, barely a year into his tenure, has already brought a wave of new thinking to Indian hockey
‘Beijing was hard. I’m glad I can forget it now’
Gagan Narang should have been euphoric—he had just scored 701.1 to win the bronze in the 10 metre air rifle event. This was his first Olympic medal, to add to his kitty of medals won at the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the World Championships. But he looked reserved and not really interested in the photo-op the media was insisting on. He obliged nevertheless. When we started chatting, he’d just finished his statutory dope test, which took really long. The conversation went on for a good two-and-a-half hours or so, with some mini breaks for a series of television interviews. Excerpts
Q Beijing was a heartbreak—I know what you went through after failing to make the final on countback. Finally, you can forget it and move on.
Gagan: Beijing was really hard. It was very difficult to come to terms with the loss. But I put in a lot of hard work in the past four years to get ready for London. In fact, I’ve been chasing this medal for eight years now. Finally, I have won. But as you said, it was a very difficult journey and I am glad it has ended on a happy note.
Q When did it sink in? Were you following the Chinese shooter (Wang Tao), right next to you, to see how much he had scored before you fired your final shot? Wang was challenging you for the medal till the very end.
Gagan: Not initially. I was going for gold and silver to start with, but that one bad shot (in the ninth shot, he scored his lowest—9.5—in the final) meant I could not catch up with the leaders. That’s when I became more determined to get the bronze. The Chinese was tense and I could sense it. I waited for him to shoot his last shot, checked his score on the board and when it was a 10.4, I knew I had to fire a good last shot to seal it. I did and the medal was mine.
Q You have shot 600 out of 600 in the past and you started really well in the qualification. What went wrong in the third set?
Gagan: Shooting 600 out of 600 is always a great feeling. However, I had not started well in the qualification. Mentally I wasn’t in the zone when start time was announced and fired my first shot in the thirty second minute of our allotted one hour and forty five minutes. It meant time was at a premium, and in the third set, I was trying to hurry with a few of my shots. As a result, I docked two points, which proved really vital in the end. At the same time, I must say that such things happen in sport, and I am satisfied that I have been able to win an Olympic medal.
Q A word on Abhinav—he too was shooting well and missed out on qualification because of a bad final set.
Gagan: He is a champion and will always remain the man who revolutionised shooting in India, following up on Rajyavardhan Rathore’s silver medal at Athens. I haven’t spoken to him since the competition but will do so soon. He just had a bad few minutes and lost out on qualification. In shooting, these things happen. But he will surely make a comeback and win many more medals for India.
Q Having done 9.5 in the penultimate shot, how hard was it to come back for a really good last shot and secure the medal? I mean how bad were the nerves at that point?
Gagan: I have always relaxed a little before my last shot. In the final, however, I realised that the completion was too close to call and I just didn’t want to loosen up till the last shot had been fired. I was fully focused on the final shot and am happy I finished off well. It doesn’t take away from the fact that a better ninth shot would have given me a higher podium finish, but as I said these things happen in shooting, and I’d rather look ahead than look back.
Q You still have the three positions event, your other favourite, on 6 August.
Gagan: I will give it my best. Fingers crossed. All the Indian shooters are trying to give their best and are practising really hard.
‘One small tactical blunder cost Gagan the gold’
Just as I entered the press conference arena where Narang was to come and speak to the media, I saw a contemplative Stanislav Lapidus, sitting by himself in a corner. I went up to congratulate him, but he looked a bit grumpy. And exhausted, which was natural because he had just come out of hospital to be with Gagan and had done so by signing a bond that said the hospital authorities would not be held responsible if something were to happen to him. I asked after his health, and he said, “I just couldn’t bear the thought of not being with Gagan today.” Excerpts from the chat
Q Finally the Olympic dream is real. You must be a satisfied man now?
Lapidus: I am happy, but not satisfied. I have trained Gagan to reach the very top. He has won the bronze, but he could have easily won the gold or silver if he hadn’t made one tactical blunder in the qualification round. You’d have noticed Gagan started firing last in the qualification round. (Each shooter is allotted a maximum of 1 hour and 45 minutes to complete 60 shots). He was a little unsettled at first and started only half an hour into start time. He had done very well in the first 20 shots and had scored 200 out of 200. In the next 10 shots, he started rushing to make up time. I had repeatedly told him to take a break after 22 shots, but he continued shooting and missed two vital points in his third set of 10 shots. Soon after, I had to physically pull him back and calm him down before he resumed shooting. I knew he takes seven minutes for ten shots and there was no reason to panic. Once he understood, he shot 300 out of 300 in his last three sets. Had he not lost the two points and scored 600 out of 600, as I had hoped he would, the gold medal was his. As you know, he eventually lost the gold by just one point.
Q Can you talk a bit about his preparation? For example, Gagan hardly managed a podium finish in 2011 and 2012. Did that worry you?
Lapidus: Not at all. That was exactly the plan. Before Beijing, he was winning all the competitions. However, he failed when it mattered most. I was determined not to let him repeat the same mistake. A shooter can peak twice a year at most and the plan was always for Gagan to peak at the Olympics. Just check and you’ll see no shooter who has won the World Cup this year has done well at the Olympics. This was very much part of our strategy. Gagan is now in his best physical shape and technically he is at the top of his game. That’s why I am saying I am not satisfied with a bronze.
Q By the time this is read, Gagan would have started preparing for his two remaining events—the prone and the 50 metre three positions. Does he have a realistic chance in any of these?
Lapidus: Prone is not his best event, so I don’t think he has much of a chance in prone. But he has done well in three positions (due on 6 August) in the past and now that he has a medal, he should shoot better. Niccolo Campriani, who won the silver in the 10m air rifle, is the favourite for three positions, but Gagan also has a chance. However, for him to be in the best frame of mind, the media needs to leave him alone for the next few days—not call him, BBM him, or even speak to him. After the 6th, speak to him as much as you like. Let him concentrate on the event and not get distracted by the euphoria of winning this medal. I know you’ll speak to him today, but don’t from tomorrow.
‘This team can challenge any top side’
Having taken over Indian hockey a year earlier, Michael Nobbs has brought about some fundamental changes in India’s style of play. The players are fitter than before and they are getting used to playing a more physical game. Nobbs, however, knows his job is only half done and that India is not yet ready to challenge the best. Cautiously optimistic, he is using the London campaign as part of his long-term vision to restore Indian hockey to its lost glory by Rio 2016. These conversations, a series of them really, were conducted between 21 July, when the team checked into the Village, and 31 July, after the narrow defeat against the Netherlands in India’s opening encounter
Q Really narrow loss against the Netherlands. Disappointed?
Nobbs: Yes, very. Having equalised from being down 0-2 at half time, we shouldn’t have conceded the match. At the same time, the boys were in the game till the very end, which is a good sign. They were initially nervous. This allowed the opposition to score the two goals in the first half. Only two of our players, Sandeep and Ignace, have Olympic experience; the others were slightly overawed by the occasion. Once they got into their rhythm, they managed to push the opposition and score twice. I am confident we will play much better in the remaining games.
Q It’s good to see this side can come back into the game from a 0-2 deficit. What’s different about this side?
Nobbs: (Laughs) A comeback is not good enough; we have to beat the best. I come from a country where only a win is acceptable. We have immense potential in India and have a nice blend of experience and youth in this team. But transformations don’t happen overnight; it is a long-term process. We have introduced some sports science, new training methods and a host of other changes. It will take time, but I can say for sure that you will see the effect of these changes in this Olympics itself.
Q Have the preparations been okay? Are you satisfied with where the team is at this point?
Nobbs: I would have been happy if we managed a few more games against top European opposition in the run-up to the Olympics. But having said that, we have prepared to the best of our ability. The first target was to qualify. Only after that was achieved, did we refocus on the Games.
Q You’ve told me in the past that the first aim is a top-six finish. Are you still holding on to that aim?
Nobbs: Yes, that’s the aim. We have to take it a match at a time and move on with the campaign. We are capable of surprising a few top teams. We need to do better with our penalty corner conversions, and convert at least 60-70 per cent of the short corners. The forwards need to be more proactive in getting short corners for Sandeep and Raghunath, and then we will be in business. But, as I said, the process is underway, and Indian hockey will be back on the podium sooner than later.