The Rio 2016 Olympics are here. After years of preparation, months of qualifications, weeks of anticipation and even days of controversies, it is time for the biggest sporting spectacle in the world. And while all eyes are set on Brazil, as the Opening Ceremony gets underway on Friday, there will be many in India who will be eyeing the stats and surveys to speculate on the big question – What are India’s medal chances?
As is the case every four years, Indians are debating over the country’s medal haul. This is India’s largest ever contingent at the Games – with 107 athletes participating – and understandably, hopes are high. A Goldman Sachs survey has predicted that India will clinch eight medals, including one gold. Sports Illustrated has also predicted silver medals for India.
And amidst all these speculations, lies the bigger question - which sports will these medals come from?
The strongest medal hope is from the 12-member shooting contingent. Shooting is a sport that India has excelled at in the recent past – four Olympic medals, second only to hockey, including a gold, two silver and one bronze.
And all of them in the previous three Games, within a period of 12 years. In addition, India has produced consistent results in shooting competitions at various multi-sport events, such as the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games as well as the ISSF Shooting World Cup and World Championship.
Shooting has seen a largely upward trajectory in India in the recent past. The first shooting medal came at the 2004 Athens Games, when Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore created history by winning an individual silver medal – India’s first ever – in the double trap shooting event.
Since then, the country’s achievements in shooting have shot up – Abhinav Bindra won the first ever individual gold medal in the 10m Air Rifle event at the Beijing Games in 2008. At the London 2012 Games, India doubled the number by winning two medals – Vijay Kumar won the silver in 25m rapid Fire Pistol and Gagan Narang got the bronze in 10m Air Rifle. Understandably, the expectations are high.
“People expect a lot from shooting because we (Indian shooters) have given such performances," Anjali Bhagwat, former Olympian and shooter, told Firstpost. “The trend started because of the achievements of the senior shooters and people got attracted towards the sport," she added.
Bhagwat also credits the success to the infrastructure provided to shooters in India. "Every result is team work, shooting has come up because few state associations, and our federation also, are very active – we have a good policy, we have confirmed planning, six to seven trials everywhere, and a national championship from where the best shooters are selected to represent the country," she says. And the results are showing.
One look at the squad going to Rio, and you will know just how good India's recent performances in shooting have been.
Abhinav Bindra: 10m air rifle
Gagan Narang: 50m rifle 3 positions, 50m rifle prone, 10m air rifle
Jitu Rai: 50m pistol, 10m air pistol
Chain Singh: 50m rifle 3 positions, 50m rifle prone
Gurpreet Singh: 25m rapid fire pistol, 10m air pistol
Prakash Nanjappa: 50m pistol
Manavjit Singh Sandhu: Trap
Kynan Chenai: Trap
Mairaj Ahmad Khan: Skeet
Heena Sidhu: 10m air rifle, 25m pistol
Apurvi Chandela: 10m air rifle
Ayonika Paul: 10m air rifle
India is sending its biggest-ever shooting contingent to Rio Olympics 2016, with 12 shooters, each of whom have made a name for themselves at the highest level. The squad features two Olympic medallists — Abhinav Bindra and Gagan Narang — who know exactly what it takes to succeed at the biggest sporting stage. There is also the presence of experienced shooters such as Jitu Rai, Manavjit Singh Sandhu, Prakash Nanjappa, Chain Singh, and former world number one and world record holder Heena Sidhu.
But the man most suited to repeat Bindra's 2008 feat is the unassuming Jitu Rai. He is the reigning world champion in 50m pistol and has been in a rich vein of form, having won medals at the Asian Games (gold and bronze in Incheon 2014), Commonwealth Games (gold in Glasgow 2014), World Cup (two gold, three silver and one bronze) and World Championships (silver in Granada 2014). With such an illustrious record, it comes as no surprise that the Army man has a lot of expectation riding on him.
Bhagwat also pegged Jitu Rai as a favourite. “I am counting on Jitu Rai’s performance, he is a very tough shooter. He performs as a responsibility, he shoots as if that is his job and that’s why he doesn’t falter. It's probably his Army background,” she said.
Bindra himself, will be seeking his final hurrah at his fifth Olympic Games. The one Indian who knows what it is to be on top of the podium, he will be keen to replicate that moment. Bindra crashed to a 16th place finish in 2012 London, but this time he has gone the extra mile in preparation and even created Rio-like settings at his home to practice better. Gagan Narang, who kept India's flag high in 10 m Air Rifle with a bronze at London, will also be hoping to change the colour of his medal.
In the women's draw, Heena Sindhu will be the player to watch out for. Heena, who holds the finals World Record in 10 m Air Pistol and is the first female Indian pistol shooter to be ranked world number one, missed the 10m final in London four years ago and will be looking to change that in Rio.
Bhagwat has high praise for Heena as well. “Heena Sidhu is a very talented shooter, she has been world number one so she has that much of exposure and experience of how to shoot at the level. The best thing about her is that she is very thorough with her technique, she knows how to deliver the shot, and even if she delivers a wrong shot, she will not leave her technique, she will finish with a good technique. Even if she falters in the first series, as a shooter we are sure she has a chance to cover in the rest of the series. That’s the command she has on her technique,” said Bhagwat.
Also in action will be the 10m air rifle women duo of Apurvi Chandela and Ayonika Paul, who had won gold and silver medals respectively at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. "Ayonika is very mature and knows how to be very strong-minded, she has that aggression to pull herself from even from the eight position to win. Apurvi is very sincere and manages herself very well, she has shown results in the world cup and her world ranking is in the top five," said Bhagwat, praising the two.
But the range in Rio won't be easy for Indian shooters. There are new rules in place, significant among which is the new final format, where all finalists must start from scratch.
"It is difficult to predict a medal for India because of the change of rules, the sequence of the positions, the timings, and the procedure of the finals," said Bhagwat. “The old system was that the qualification round used to be in full with scores out of 400 or 600, but now each and every shot is counted in the decimal, the perfect shot is 10.9 so scores are now out of 436."
"The decimal calculation, the change in sequence of positions, particular in three positions – we have to start with the kneeling position, which is really tiring, and the changeover time has also been reduced," adds Bhagwat.
This means that the margin of error has been reduced to mere decimal points and that the pre-qualification score will be nullified – both of which can be to a shooter's disadvantage.
However, Raninder Singh, NRAI President, is optimistic about India's chances. “I am very open about it. Three minimum (medals) and depending on luck we can make it six because all our athletes are at that level where just fractions can make them stand on the podium.”
With the kind of experience and depth the shooting contingent has, as well as the presence of the big names, the hope of a multiple podium finish is not far-fetched. In fact, India's chance of claiming a double-digit medal tally will largely depend on how these shooters perform.