Sport

@Rio: Sorrow of the Indian Shooting Stars

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They win the country most of its Olympic medals. Indian shooters still remain unsung at home

First SEE WHAT IT TAKES.

Subedar Vijay Kumar rests his right cheek against the hump of his shoulder and raises his pistol to his line of sight. The slack and drooping cheek, like the jowl of a bulldog, contradicts the rest of his posture. The rest of his being. Every other molecule in his erect frame is stiff and alert, aligned for a purpose like iron filings drawn to a magnet.

The pistol weighs about a kilo and a half. Or 1,400 grams to be exact. But the subedar can’t feel the weight at the end of his extended fist. In his current state, the subedar can in fact feel close to nothing. His muscles don’t twitch, his heart barely beats and his lungs have long stopped expecting air. Dead to the world at a clinical, physiological level; yet his soul, his spirit, somehow more alive than ever. Kumar lines his right pupil with the ‘U’ of the rearsight of his pistol. The five targets wait to be punctured, precisely 25 metres ahead.

To get a better understanding of the 25m Rapid Fire Pistol event, the one our subedar is currently holding his stance in, one must first imagine that he (or she) is standing on the edge of an average-sized swimming pool. Now imagine that five dart boards are placed in line, side by side, at the other end of the pool. Imagined? Good. Now drop your left eyelid and raise your right arm and hold out your index finger and thumb so that it forms an imaginary gun and picture releasing imaginary bullets towards those dart boards, a whole pool-length away.

Easy? Knew you’d think that. But what if I forgot, rather conveniently, to mention that just hitting the board isn’t enough, you must pierce the very centre of it—a circle with the diameter of a pear. Beyond this pear, the dart board is meaningless. You may as well have aimed your gun at the dozing lifeguard. Now picture aiming for that pear. Not one. But all five of them.

In four seconds. Did I forget to mention that too?

One last thing. You’re not just shooting five pears in four seconds from across your gymkhana pool, you’re doing all of that in the pressure vortex that is the Olympics. The Olympics, the stage that the best of the best, the creme de la creme, show up at following 47 exhausting months of training. The Olympics, where four years of blood-spilling effort can be undone by a minute spike in heart rate, or a small gulp of air, or even a mistimed blink of the eyelid.

You get the idea. Edward A Murphy, his goddamned law and all that.

Subedar Kumar had trained for three years and eleven months to ensure that Murphy stayed the hell away from this moment. This moment, the final of the 25m Rapid Fire Pistol at the Royal Artillery Barracks in London. He had trained twice a day until his right shoulder rose and held the pistol aloft with the grace of a statue. He had trained till his head tilted at just the right angle and not a degree more or less and he trained his spine to bend just the right amount of concave by the hip. Over the last four years, he had spent roughly 4,000 hours at the gym toning his physique. But most importantly, he spent a little more time and energy training his mind to keep a check on his eyes, heart, lungs and Murphy.

Still, he had heard the stories. In 2004, at the Athens Games, American shooter Matthew Emmons was the outright leader of the 50m Three-Position final. Such was his lead that all he needed was an 8 (the third concentric ring outside the bull’s eye) with his final shot to clinch gold. Emmons, by the way, hadn’t missed the inner-most ring all day. He was the football equivalent of leading by six goals to nil with only injury time left on the clock.

We shooters hardly ever become brand ambassadors and star in an advertisement. Because shooting is a thinking sport with little or no mass following

Emmons shot an 8.1, but on the adjacent target board! Think about it, he fired, mistakenly of course, at his rival’s target board. Zero points—Emmons went from first to last before the crowd could say ‘Son of a gun’.

Back to Kumar. Back to his stance. Back to seeing what it takes. It’s Series 7 of the final in London 2012, the round that decides if he gets to enter the gold medal shoot-off. To get there, to this spiritual place that he hasn’t dared dream of for the last four years, he needs to hit four of those pear-sized centres to eliminate China’s Ding Feng. There’s a black monitor placed on his shooting station, one that keeps him up to date with his fellow competitors’ scores. Feng, he notices, has 27 and has finished his round. Kumar has 24. Four will take him to 28. The leader, Cuba’s Leuris Pupo, is beyond such mathematics with 30.

The monitor also aids the shooters with their hits and misses. A green light goes off for every target-centre hit. Red for a miss, even if he missed by just a hair’s breadth.

“Kumar, India,” says the Olympic judge. “Attention.”

Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.
Green. Green. Green. Green. Red.

A small contingent of Indian administrators and reporters, about seven of them in total, applaud the moment. Kumar remains poised, giving nothing away. Nothing. Not even when the worst he could do from here on was silver.

“I was bursting inside,” he says in a phone interview from Mhow, Madhya Pradesh. “I knew I had become an Olympic medallist, but I was still in contention for gold.”

Gold. The pure ecstasy of it. Enough to penetrate thoughts of schadenfreude even in Kumar’s zen-like mind. “Pupo was going to shoot first and he had 30 points to my 28. I closed my eyes and hoped that he would not shoot a 4. Even a 3 was okay, I could still tie him by getting a perfect 5. But if Pupo got 4, game over.” Pupo got 4. Game over.

Life, on the other hand, Kumar reckoned, had just begun. At that point, when he lowered his neck on the podium and was garlanded with a silver medal, Kumar had become just the ninth Indian ever to win an individual Olympic medal. By the end of the Olympics, the tally had increased to 12 Indians and 13 medals. Twelve Indians. Out of an existing population of roughly 1,300,000,000. Kumar could even be pardoned for believing that he was going to be famous.

Three days after his return to India, the weight of the silver medal still fresh around his neck, Kumar was walking around the streets of New Delhi without anyone really turning their heads. The unused pen hung solemnly in his breast pocket.

In this country, ‘fans’, if followers of shooting can be called that, are known to be flaky. But what about the institution he brought pride and honour to? “I competed in the Olympics as an Indian Army officer, representing them. They have given me nothing in return, no promotion, nothing,” Kumar said in a TV interview to NDTV about a year after the London Olympics. “If this goes on, I will have no choice but to seek better opportunities in the corporate world.”

Now you see?

OF THE 12 INDIANS to have earned medals at the Olympics, four of them are shooters—Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, Abhinav Bindra, Gagan Narang and Kumar. Bindra, of course, broke the proverbial glass ceiling in Beijing 2008 (at the 10m Air Rifle event) by becoming India’s first and only individual Olympic gold medallist. But he will be the first to tell you that he, to a certain extent, and his colleagues are celebrated for exactly a 15-day period in every four-year cycle.

My name has never been chanted, it never will be. There are no hefty prize money cheques on offer for us. It’s all paper certificates and tin medals

‘Who watches, and talks, bullets? Who’s interested in our dressing room talk and whether the posture is correct and if there is chatter in the brain? Loneliness became a price I had to pay,’ Bindra wrote in his staggering autobiography, A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey to Olympic Gold. ‘We have to be a little insane to do this, a trifle obsessive, almost as single-minded as shaven monks who sit for years meditating under trees in search of distant nirvana.’

Bindra, thanks to that gold, at least and much deservedly, received some of his due. A street was named after him in Bhopal (a moment that overwhelmed the champion to tears), fans lined up in snaking queues around showrooms to see him cut a ribbon and his parents in Chandigarh slit open close to half-a-million envelopes containing letters of affection from complete strangers. Kumar, on the other hand, had to wait two years to get promoted from subedar to subedar- major. In all likelihood, he will retire a junior commissioned officer of the Indian Army.

“We shooters hardly ever become brand ambassadors for a product and you will never see a shooter in an advertisement,” Kumar says. And why is that, I ask. “Because shooting is a thinking sport with little or no mass following. It’s never televised outside of the Olympics and Asian Games and there is absolutely no coverage of our World Cups. On top of that, it is a difficult sport to understand. Why will we be on hoardings?”

Chess is a thinking sport with little or no mass following that is difficult to understand. Yet Viswanathan Anand is a household name and can be seen selling everything from Memory Plus tablets to NIIT. Bindra, though, feels the problem runs deeper. Much, much deeper.

‘In the West, the athlete comes first, the administrator second. They get this right. I never touched anyone’s feet as an athlete, but if I had, my life would have been easier. Maybe then they might have got my name right,’ writes Bindra in his book. ‘The Indian Olympic Association boss, Suresh Kalmadi, referred to me as ‘Avinash’.’

‘I am a shooter, hardly a household name, but you’d think he’d know who I was, considering I had just won the Olympic gold in Beijing.’

By the way, that Beijing gold, the only individual gold this country has ever produced, wasn’t witnessed live by his parents due to yet another botch-up by the IOA. ‘Despite early reminders to the IOA for hotel rooms (for my parents), no reply arrived, but friends agreed to give them theirs,’ writes Bindra. ‘Then the IOA sent them tickets for my shooting: they were for the 14th; I was competing on the 11th.’

‘They stayed home.’

But when Sonia Gandhi made an impromptu appearance at the Games Village in Beijing, at an unauthorised gate no less, Kalmadi (64 then) was seen darting from pillar to post, much to the amusement of the athletes, perspiring and persistent to make sure she didn’t miss the flag hoisting ceremony.

So these shooters, including Bindra, have no choice but to shrug and do it all on their own. All of it. They arrive many hours before a flight, get the gun examined by the airline, by security, by customs, by stewards. They fill out papers, sign forms and according to Bindra, ‘sigh a lot’. Then, when they arrive at their destination after a long and exhausting flight, they stand in long queues to get their guns and pellets cleared all over again. Time to head to the hotel now? No, not a chance. Time rather to head to the range to deposit the guns.

And then, finally, when they do go to their hotel, as Bindra found out at the 2002 World Championships in Lahti, Finland, there are no rooms available for the officials as the coaches have occupied them, leaving competitors like Bindra to share a room with six people for three days and nights. Says Bindra: ‘Maybe some of the coaches got confused and thought they were competing.’

Somehow, all that harassment seems worth it, as Kumar tells me, if the shooter has an Olympic medal hanging on a nail in their house. Or, in his case, a 2BHK Army quarter. “That medal is forever, no?” says Kumar, in all politeness. Our conversation is closing in on an hour and he hasn’t complained, about anything at all. Not about the Army (like he had with NDTV). Not about India’s administrators. Not about his facilities. But I probe for a lament and Kumar laughs.

“What’s the point of me complaining now?” he asks, still chuckling. “It’s all in the past, which means it’s history. And history cannot be denied, just like my Olympic medal. I will know that I won one till the day I die. And that is enough for me.”

Kumar knows that you don’t bring a sword to a gun fight. But Bindra brings his eloquent pen to one. You can almost picture him thumbing that extra-sensitive trigger of his Walther rifle as he writes: ‘My name has never been chanted, it never will be. There are no hefty prize money cheques on offer for us. Week in and week out, it’s all paper certificates and tin medals. In a way, without diminishing other sports, our pursuit is pure. Pure gold.’

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