Indian shooters eyeing Beijing glory

By Abhishek Roy, IANS,

New Delhi : Hockey was seen as a medal prospect for years at the Olympics. Now aficionados of shooting are looking at it in the same way, with the Beijing Games set to open Aug 8.

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The hockey team’s failure to qualify for the Olympics for the first time in 80 years has increased the pressure on the nine marksmen, and the expectation is each of them must get more than one medal.

Rajyavardhan Rathore won the silver in the double trap event at the Athens Olympics four years ago.

Chances are tough, but hopes have soared as seven men – Abhinav Bindra, Gagan Narang (both 10 metres air rifle), Sanjeev Rajput (50 m rifle), Samaresh Jung (10 m pistol), Manavjit Sandhu, Mansher Singh (both trap) and Rathore, and two women – Anjali Bagwat (50 m rifle), Avneet Kaur Sidhu (10 m air rifle) have created enough hype in the run-up to the Games.

At Athens, Rathore looked good for the gold, but the wind took it away, but his silver had the stamp of class as one of world’s best double-trap shooters. There may have been a slump in his performance in recent competitions, but the world No.23 can inspire the contingent to win medals.

Rathore is still considered a tough competitor as he could peak at the right time and his close friend and the gold medallist at Athens, Ahmed Almaktoum, knows it, though the participation of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) shooter in Beijing is in doubt. Saif Al-Shamsy might replace Almaktoum.

Even local hero Hu Binuyan, who lost the Athens silver to Rathore in a shoot-off, will be gearing up for a better show at home.

Besides Rathore, the country is looking up to rifle shooters Narang and Bindra, pistol ace Jung and trap shooter Sandhu for medals.

“All the shooters are working very hard and I am happy that they are peaking at the right time. The rifle shooters had a good outing in Germany, where they took part in some practice events. Now we will be heading to Malaysia for another camp before going to Beijing,” said national coach Sunny Thomas.

The national coach was confident that Rathore could repeat his Athens performance in Beijing.

“He (Rathore) is consistently shooting 140 in practice and if he shoots like this, he’s a medal prospect,” said Thomas.

The national coach regretted that other double trap shooter, World No.5 Ronjan Sodhi, failed to get a hardship quota despite setting two world records in a World Cup.

“It was unfortunate that Sodhi couldn’t make it. He is in fine form and setting two world records in one World Cup is not easy. Sodhi is now the highest ranked Indian shooter and his presence would have been a big gain for us,” he added.

Thomas was all praise for Narang.

The eighth-ranked Narang, 25, will return to the Beijing shooting ranges, where he won the air rifle gold medal at the World Cup in 2006 and followed that with a bronze at this year’s edition in April.

“Qualifying for the Olympics is in itself a big achievement. All of us who have qualified will be going there with the intention of bagging a medal. But it all comes down to the day of the competition and whoever walks into the range in perfect mental and physical state, will walk away with laurels,” said Narang.

The 24-year-old Hyderabad resident also surpassed a world record in an unofficial event at Hannover in Germany earlier this month.

“Shooting 599 at any competition is immensely satisfying and it is an indicator of my current form. Going into the Beijing games it will surely give me a lot of confidence. My aim is to shoot consistently well and if I am able to do that, the medal will take care of itself,” he said.

Narang also said that the experience of training abroad for the past seven month would stand him in good stead in Beijing.

“For the last seven months we have been training abroad and have managed a fair deal of practice. I will take confidence from my World Cup scores as well. I won a bronze in China, earlier this year.”

The Beijing Olympics will also witness bitter rivalry between the Chinese and Russians.

Chinese and Russian shooters are considered the powerhouses in the sport. At the Athens Olympic Games, Chinese shooters swept four gold, two silver and three bronze medals, while Russians bagged three gold, four silver and three bronze.

The World Championships two years back in Croatia was dominated by shooters from the two countries, each bagging five gold, but they, too, have their worries.

Chinese shooters will face unprecedented pressure at home, while Russia didn’t release its shooting roster until June, leaving a short time for their shooters to train for the Olympics.

The German team, led by world champions Ralph Schumann and Sonja Pfeilschifter, is trying to stage a comeback and regain its past glory.

The left-handed Pfeilschifter not only holds the world record in the women’s 50-metre rifle three position, but improved Du Li’s previous record in 10-metre air rifle by 0.1 point at the Milan World Cup two months ago.

The US team doesn’t have many big names, but one — Matthew Emmons — is enough and he is familiar with the Chinese. Four years ago, the marksman made a weird mistake, firing the last shot at a wrong target, surrendering the Olympic gold medal to Chinese shooter Jia Zhanbo.