The Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games were the first major games in my adult life that I didn't participate in. Being 'yesterday's man' made me an ideal candidate for being today's 'armchair critic' and what an enjoyable thing it was to follow the Indian shooting contingent's (and, more broadly, Team India's) performances in this new capacity.
Our Indian shooters gave us something to celebrate practically every day of the shooting competition. Medals came from across the range of disciplines and from both experienced shooters as well as the youngest members of the contingent.
To see Manu Bhaker and Anish Bhanwala win gold in what was their first multi-sport competition was just fantastic. At 16 and 15, respectively, they have abundant talent, have been coached to excel and have no boundaries on their aspirations. It is going to be critical that this spirit be encouraged and fostered as their bodies, minds and personalities grow. This is an art that requires both expert intervention and the art of staying away, i.e., knowing when to encourage the athlete to develop his/her own tools and methods.
Here, we must pause to credit not only the NRAI for the junior development programme that has produced champions like these two, Mehuli Ghosh and quite a few others, but also the coaches including Jaspal Rana (my first role model) and Joydeep Karmakar (who has made a wonderful transition from athlete to coach). I hope both the NRAI and the coaches stay the course on this project.
It is impossible for a retired athlete to not follow one's own event and I was delighted to see Ravi Kumar win bronze in the Men's 10m air rifle. Ravi is someone who has worked long and hard for his success and he deserves every bit of credit for his results. I remember speaking with him after the 2014 Glasgow final, telling him his time would come, and I am heartened that this event that I love is in good hands.
In terms of our other shooting medallists, many of them were expected to win, and that itself, while exciting for Indian sport, is very challenging for the athlete. Adding public expectation to event pressure is something that can't be explained, only experienced. Most of our shooters experienced this -- and performed and won. Large amounts of mental work will be required by each one of them to be ready and prepared. They will each encounter new experiences in the mind and body with finger on trigger, especially as the expectations and stakes grow progressively larger.
"Shooting can respond to future challenges by continuing to build its champions and celebrating their skills of stillness, mental conditioning, hard work, the quest for perfection."
Indian shooting is moving in an exciting trajectory on depth and breadth of talent as well as participation rates. Interestingly, this is at a time when the global future of the sport faces new challenges.
Under the IOC's Agenda 2020, a wholesale evaluation of every Olympic discipline was undertaken not just for gender parity but for future relevance to the global youth. Thankfully, the ISSF, the world shooting body, saw the writing on the wall and revised its Olympic event programme, thereby enabling shooting to retain the same number of events and medals even if not all of the disciplines at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. We will also not see shooting at the next Commonwealth Games in 2022, and while this is a real pity for India, the choice of elective events is the host's prerogative and must be respected. There will be many other fora for us to show our shooting strength and earn a seat at the table.
The sport needs its ambassadors and our athletes and administrators must keep working hard to inspire, attract and retain talent and the public interest between these bigger multi-sport events. This is the only way we can strengthen our hand and standing in the global administration of the sport, which I feel is an urgent priority given the standing of our local talent. A better domestic structure (perhaps even a competitive league), media and broadcast outreach and an improved effort to communicate the skills involved in the sport to the public are ingredients I can immediately think of.
At the same time, sports like shooting will be challenged by their modern cousins like esports. Video gaming can use similar skills and give one different thrills in virtual spheres and esports will soon compete hard for the same young minds and hearts and Olympic event slots. These alternatives will have the added advantage of being natural fits for the digital native generation who now seem to be born with technology in their blood.
How does shooting respond? It can only do so by continuing to build its champions and celebrating their skills of stillness, mental conditioning, hard work, the quest for perfection. I would like to think these are enduring and not ancient or redundant personal characteristics, and that we as a species will continue to aspire for these and seek inspiration from athletes on. But, then again, I am admittedly 'yesterday's man' and could well be proven wrong.
(Abhinav Bindra is India's only Olympic gold medallist in an individual sport)