Dispirited Narang left to pick up the pieces

Do Indian shooters lack mental conditioning? (1:43)

ESPN India's Gaurav Kalra reports from Rio as Gagan Narang struggles towards the end to bow out of the 50m rifle prone event (1:43)

RIO -- At first glance, it is a mildly comical sight. Grown men, lying flat on their tummies, perching up wth a rifle in hand. However, the Prone event is seriously tough business. A competitor has to stay 50 minutes in that posture to get 60 shots across to a target placed 50 metres away. The centre of the target is positioned 0.75 metres above the floor.

The diameter of the target is breathtakingly tiny at 154.4 millimetres but get this, that isn't what the shooters aim for. The fourth ring within that target is 106.4 millimetres and just because somehow that isn't challenging enough to shoot at, the tenth ring, where a shot can be worth 10.9 points measures 10.4 millimetres.

The security checks at the Olympic shooting range were slower than usual so by the time I walked in on Friday morning, Gagan Narang was already through the first three series of the qualifying rounds. 104.7. 104.4. 104.6. Steady, consistent scores and while he wouldn't have known with the scoreboard placed behind the shooters, he was snapping at the heels of the early leaders. The intention at this point was to finish among the top eight, with the scores from this stage of the competition being discarded in the final.

Narang, in his fourth Olympics, was at the extreme right end of the field of 47 shooters, with only two others farther away. For most of his career Narang was primarily a 10m Air Rifle shooter - he won his Olympic bronze in London in 2012 in this category. But since those Games he turned his attention to Prone as a neck injury forced him out of contention in the Air Rifle. The differences in the two competitions are significant.

Besides the obvious ones that the shooter stands in the Air Rifle and lies down in Prone and shoots over 10m in the Air Rifle and 50m in the Prone, there are other major adjustments to make. The Air Rifle can not weigh more than 5.5 kilograms while the one used in Prone can be up to 8 kilograms in weight. The nature of the ammunition too varies, with the Prone using a 0.22 inch caliber bullet while the Air Rifle is shot with 0.177 inch pellet. The Air Rifle is indoors and hence competed in a controlled environment. Prone is outdoors and shooters are expected to conquer elements such as windy conditions and extreme weather.

Now to us casual observers, that sounds like a bunch of gobbledygook but for those in the business of shooting, to master these vastly different skill sets is a massive challenge. Narang had to because of his injury and made encouraging progress. At the 2014 Commonwealth games in Glasgow, he won silver in the event and earned his quota place for the Rio games in Prone too. So even when he squandered a strong start in the 10m Air Rifle qualification earlier in the week to finish in 23rd place, Narang didn't let his shoulders droop.

He knew he had his new baby to fall back on.

Series four begins and the first blip appears on Narang's radar. 103. The knowledgeable heads seated alongside me start to get a bit shifty. Frayed nerves are settled as series five is recorded at 104. Ten shots to go and this should be in the bag. Five more and Narang is in seventh spot. And then, he experiences his Jitu Rai moment. Just like his pistol colleague who floundered at about the same stage in his event, the wind picks up and Narang lets the shot go that would kill him.


There is an audible gasp. He needs a sizzling finish to recover now but it doesn't come. Lower 10s end his series at 102.4. On a cumulative score of 623.1, Narang tumbles to 13th. German Henri Junhaenel would qualify on 624.8. Only 1.7 points when you read a colourless scoresheet, in shooting parlance the margin between elite and the also rans.

Narang is a broken man as he stands up to examine the ruins of his day. A quiet conversation with his coach, an exasperated waft through his hair, hands on hips, he stares blankly into the distance as the range starts to empty out.

Shot 56. 9.5. Goddamn it. This micro second of a moment will return to his dreams for years.

"I gave my best, I gave it all I had," he tells us quote seekers. "I will have to go back and think what exactly happened. I will have to run it through my mind again."

At 33, Narang is no stranger to combating gut-wrenching disappointments. He does stoic easily at most times but one senses that on this day, his spirit is broken. He leaves sentences incomplete, he speaks in a soft, near inaudible voice, he struggles to count the positives.

He watches the final later, ironically won by Junhaenel, the German who qualified in eighth spot. 1.7 points ahead of Narang.

That 9.5. Goddamn it.

"I would like to shoot more," he wearily tells us. "This is definitely not the end for me."