Niccolo Campriani finds new meaning in life after retirement with project helping refugee shooters qualify for Tokyo 2020

Niccolo Campriani’s project is not just about training refugee shooters for Tokyo 2020. It’s also about helping them discover a new identity and sending a message to other athletes that life goes on beyond a sporting career.

Amit Kamath June 16, 2020 15:45:22 IST
Niccolo Campriani finds new meaning in life after retirement with project helping refugee shooters qualify for Tokyo 2020

Perhaps the trickiest part of any athlete’s career is making the decision to retire. Three-time Olympic champion Niccolo Campriani, however, had no gnawing second thoughts when he walked away from the sport after the Rio Olympics.

The Italian shooter admitted that he had started to feel a void right after winning gold in the 50m rifle 3 positions event at the London Olympics in 2012. But despite that, he soldiered on and at Rio 2016 he added two more golds to his haul from London 2012. Despite the medals, however, the sense of happiness had gone missing somewhere along those years.

Niccolo Campriani finds new meaning in life after retirement with project helping refugee shooters qualify for Tokyo 2020

Three-time Olympic champion Niccolo Campriani (right) with Mahdi (left) and Khaoula during their visit to Bengaluru. Image courtesy: Olympic Channel

“I don’t agree with the equation that a gold medal equals happiness. We do have to right to be unhappy. It’s not that because we have won gold at the Olympics we’re the happiest people in the world. At the end of the day, it’s about being passionate and loving what you do. It’s so important to pass this message to every athlete that they may not find happiness atop the podium. It’s about working on yourself. The last shot at the Olympics is not going to define who you are,” Campriani told journalists in an online press conference on Monday as he unveiled ‘Taking Refuge’, a documentary about his project to train three refugees for Tokyo Olympics 2020.

The first five episodes of Taking Refuge were released on the Olympic Channel on Monday.

Campriani is not the first athlete to have felt that sense of a void after winning Olympic gold. India’s sole individual Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra too has spoken about how he had to ask himself the dreaded 'what now' after winning gold at Beijing 2008.

After retiring at the end of Rio 2016 with a fourth-place finish, Bindra started a foundation and Abhinav Bindra Targeting Performance Centre to help other athletes. Campriani, on the other hand, started working for the International Olympic Committee.

“After I retired, it was a question of finding some meaning after spending 16 years staring at a piece of paper, which is basically what shooters do,” said Campriani.

The Italian sharpshooter found meaning three years after retirement, with his ambitious project to train upstart refugee shooters to make the cut for Tokyo 2020 in just 500 days.

Campriani counts the day he held the first training session with the three shooters ― Mahdi, Khaoula and Luna ― as one of the happiest moments of his sporting career.

“And it happened after I had retired,” he said. “So that’s the message I want to send out to all athletes who are struggling with retirement. Life goes on beyond your career.”

The Italian has been clear from the start that the project is not just about helping a group of refugee shooters qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. It’s about using the transformative power of sport to help them forge an identity.

“The last thing I want is for these three to focus 100 percent on the sport. That’s not how I lived my career. I was a student-athlete for 13 years of my 16-year-long career. It’s always been about putting sports in the context of life. The idea is to find an identity together ― for them, as refugees trying to integrate into Switzerland, and for me as an Olympian trying to integrate as a former athlete.”

Campriani revealed that while he was selecting athletes for his project, he got every one of the contenders to tell him why they wanted to be picked.

“I was looking for something more than ‘I want to go to the Olympics,’” said Campriani.

The audacity of hope

Niccolo Campriani finds new meaning in life after retirement with project helping refugee shooters qualify for Tokyo 2020

Three-time Olympic champion Niccolo Campriani (left) talks to Afghanistan's Mahdi (right). Image courtesy: Olympic Channel

The project in itself is quite audacious. As Campriani pointed out, it was a ‘challenge within a challenge’ considering it’s nearly impossible to earn an Olympic quota in one year of starting the sport. It took him eight years to win a quota for his first Olympics at Beijing after picking up the sport in 2000. Even reaching the Minimum Qualifying Score (MQS) takes two-three years, according to him.

“The tricky part is that ideally any athlete first competes in regional competitions, then nationals and so on. Then you get to the international level. But for these three, their first competition was an international one.”

Despite that, Mahdi (at the Asian Championships) and Khaoula (at the European Championships) have achieved the Minimum Qualification Scores.

“It doesn’t mean they’ve qualified for Tokyo 2020. But it means they’re in the pool to be selected,” said the Italian.

The past few months have been nothing short of a whirlwind for the shooters and Campriani.

They competed in the Italian and German National Championships, besides Mahdi competing at the Asian Championships in Doha. They also came down to Bengaluru and had a friendly competition against Indian shooters including Apurvi Chandela.

Campriani used his significant contacts in the sport to help him with the project, starting with Bindra, whose Abhinav Bindra Foundation has been among the chief sponsors. The retired Indian shooter has also travelled to Switzerland to hold a training session with the shooters besides getting them to India for scientific consultation at his Sports Science centre in Bengaluru.

There have been constant twists in the journey: the original idea was to pick two shooters, they ended up picking three; Mahdi was not eligible for refugee status and needed to get an Afghanistan passport made, which needed him to track down a relative in Kabul; Luna delivered a boy three months ago. But the biggest twist has been the postponement of the Olympics due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Campriani has chosen to look at the bright side despite the fact that postponement would increase costs for the project.

“The postponement means 364 more days of training. For someone who was aiming to go the Olympics with just 500 days of training it’s a game-changer,” he said.

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