Jitu Rai reaffirms credentials as strong medal hope for Tokyo Olympics with ISSF World Cup gold

From the outside, he is a lost soul. Within, thick, hard nails hold him together. Mentally, he is a Panzer tank. Give or take a few hundredth of an inch, he has the best chance of being India’s second individual shooting gold medallist at Tokyo 2020, after Abhinav Bindra in Beijing 2008.

Yet, that’s what they said ahead of Rio 2016. And he failed spectacularly. Like a firecracker that fizzled out far too early; India’s Olympic flame that refused to ignite. Jitu Rai, the flaming beacon of the Indian shooting fraternity in Rio finished eighth in the 10m air pistol and 12th in the 50m air pistol. Before the shooters alighted from their aircraft at Rio’s international airport, NRAI President Raninder Singh had said, “I have tremendous faith in all my athletes but one person I would really-really look out for is the phenomenal Jitu Rai.”

Six months later, disappointment tempered, a new four-year plan in hand, focusing on the Olympics and the rest in between, Rai heaved a sigh of relief after bagging the gold medal in the men’s 50m air pistol event. It was also India’s first gold at the World Cup. His face is relaxed, yet he can’t stand still. His eyes keep darting around like run-away drops of mercury. God only knows how he keeps them focused on a target 50 metres away. How does a human keep his hand still when he has to propel a pellet sized 0.177 inches into the middle of the target, the bull’s eye circle measuring 0.180 inches? But for now, he steals glances at the gold medal. And reminds himself of the targets straight ahead.

Jitu Rai. PTI

Jitu Rai. PTI

“Three medals in three days is not a bad show,” says, the ever-smiling Jitu. “Yes, initially I did feel the pressure a bit but once the mixed medal was won, I was relieved.” Like in the 10m air pistol, Jitu was also on the brink of elimination in the 50m. At the first two-shot elimination, Jitu recorded scores of 8.2, 9.5 and slipped to the sixth position in the eight-man final, where he continued to languish after another poor run at the two-shots. Then out of eight, he shot six of 10 points and more. The top slot was his as he overtook Amanpreet Singh, who imploded with seven shots of less than nine.

“A few shots I realized were wrong,” he explains. “But the thought of going out of the competition doesn’t enter my mind. And I brought myself back into the competition. All I did was keep fighting and refused to lose and suddenly the shots were going well.”

In the insular world of shooting, where only three words are taught — focus, focus and focus — Jitu over-simplifies everything. “In fact, there is no fear,” he says. “I don’t feel fear. I just start focusing on the next shot. It’s the next shot. And then the next.”

It’s a bright morning at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea. The Ongnyeon International Shooting Range gleams in the background as Jitu, the 50m pistol gold medal hanging around his neck, flits from one TV journalist to the other giving his mandatory sound bites. “Sirf do sawal (only two questions), please,” he pleads with everyone, smiling all the time. Smiling and pleading in the same breath doesn’t work with Indian TV journalists, who believe there is a Pulitzer or an Emmy in getting an interview before the others. Jitu doesn’t want to talk about the Rio Olympics as the focus of the media has not shifted, a natural line of questioning now that an Indian has picked up the coveted 50m gold.

An Asian Games has China and South Korea, two of the best in the world of shooting. Hearing Jitu’s answer is education. “I plan small,” he says. “I don’t ever talk about the gold. For me the most important part of the planning is to get the quota first. After quota, we will talk about the gold. Then plan, how to handle the pressure. But I think differently.” He even apologises if he is not following what is an expected answer from an Indian athlete.

More than two years later, the answers remain the same. A lot has happened since Incheon, especially the hurt and disappointment of Rio. “I want to take small steps,” he says. “I will first go for the quota. Then I will sit with the coach and plan out the remaining time and think about the Olympic gold.” Failures don’t change plans. The path remains consistent. For Jitu, the quota spot comes up between 20-30 April, 2018 at Changwon, South Korea. If he picks up a quota there, which he should, his countdown to 2020 begins. The chatter will pick up. ‘Expectations’, that four-year Olympic film starts its run once again.

Speaking after winning the 50m gold in Delhi, he wants to dedicate the medal to the army. The answer to that lies in Incheon too. In 2014, he was asked if Abhinav Bindra was an inspiration, he replied, “Bindra is an inspiration to everybody. He is very good. After all, he is an Olympic gold medal winner. But we don’t talk much.” And then he says, as a matter of fact, with a clean heart. “I look up to Vijay Kumar (25m rapid fire silver, 2012 Olympics). He is an army man and if he can do it, I can do it too. Vijay has worked his way up from the lower ranks. The rest are bade, bade (big) shooters, officer types.” Jitu is not taking angular shots at anyone. He speaks of his world where stringing together one line for the media is much more difficult than winning a gold on the range. For a man who joined the 11 Gorkha Rifles with no realistic ambition other than contributing to his family, climbing this far in five years (since 2011) has been nothing less than astonishing.

Pistol coach and the man credited for Vijay Kumar’s Olympic silver, Pavel Smirnov believes Jitu will deliver in Tokyo. At Rio, Pavel said, “Jitu is like a diamond. He has the right technique and temperament.” Speaking in Delhi after Jitu’s 50m gold, Pavel said, “This is only the first step of what should end on the podium in Tokyo. But there is still a long time to go and a lot of preparation to do.” Pavel is aware of the questions surrounding Rio and the flame out that happened but he argues that Jitu has the strength to overcome those challenges. “It does get disappointing,” he says calmly. “But we never take our eyes off the target. Munich will be a big challenge in May and everything else in between is steps to the target in Tokyo 2020.”

Raninder Singh is excited again. Jitu’s gold has ensured that the conversation swirls around the champion shooter. Since Incheon and Rio, are there changes in Jitu? Raninder has two words for an answer — “Determination and Technique.” He also says we will see a lot of Jitu this year. “He is a champion,” says Raninder. “He is a great contender for 2020, a prospective medal winner. Though there is a long way to go and lots of work to be done, the Olympics need to remain the focus.”

Shooting has a touch of timelessness around it. These shooters move from city to city, their lives driven by self-control, precision and a devotion to the craft. Tokyo may seem far away. But in Jitu Rai’s sights is an 85mm, 400gm Olympic medal that has slowly become the army man's singular obsession.

Updated Date: Mar 03, 2017 13:29 PM

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