Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra has been asked to head an independent inquiry set up by the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) to examine the reasons for the shooting contingent's failure to win a single medal at the Rio Olympics despite its largest-ever presence with 12 shooters qualifying for the Games.
ESPN understands that Bindra awaits an official intimation from the NRAI on the objectives and frames of reference of the panel before announcing his decision on taking up the role.
Bindra, participating in his last Olympics, came the closest among the shooters to winning a medal, finishing fourth in the 10m Air Rifle.
The head of the panel will be assisted by an eminent sports administrator and a couple of members of the media, with a mandate to look thoroughly into every aspect of the shooting fiasco in Rio. NRAI President Raninder Singh told ESPN that he expects the inquiry to be complete "in the next 2-3" weeks but insisted that he will not be putting in his papers although India has failed to win a shooting medal for the first time since the 2004 Athens Olympics. Raninder said, "I am absolutely astounded that we are going back empty handed."
He said, "Based on data, watching my athletes prepare and their performances in the build up including the last World Cup a month ago, I was absolutely convinced we should have won three medals. It is a big setback for me and the federation but that doesn't mean you sweep it under the carpet and don't deal with it head on.
"My sport is the only one at the Olympics where we've had so many athletes get so close to getting into finals or actually getting into them. It is not an excuse for not winning medals but you have to see the role of an administrator separately from the role of an athlete. I have taken responsibility for it but I see no reason to be unceremoniously told to march off into the wilderness. I think I can serve my sport better if I use my experience of what I've seen and learnt over here and after interacting with my athletes and coaches."
Besides Bindra, only one other Indian shooter reached a final at Rio - Jitu Rai in the 10m Air pistol, where he finished eighth among the eight finalists in the field. Several others missed earning qualification to the finals by a whisker. Jitu himself, in his preferred event the 50m Pistol, dropped points in his final series to fall out of contention. In the 50m Prone, four-time Olympian Gagan Narang experienced a similar meltdown, with one poor shot ruining his chances of making the cut after a solid start. In the 25m Rapid fire pistol Gurpreet Singh in his first Olympics ended 7th, with the top six making the final. Similarly in the Rifle 3 Positions, Chain Singh and Skeet, Mairaj Khan, faded towards the latter half of their qualifying rounds after igniting hopes of making the cut. Raninder, who watched most of these competitions from the stands, believes this trend needs to be carefully examined.
"In case of Jitu, I am completely convinced that he misread the wind," he said. "In most cases of our athletes we have had a petering out in the last series. This obviously means that there are deficiencies that our athletes have come into the Games with. One is endurance, both mental and technical. It is difficult to quantify this but yes endurance is an issue we have to look into."
While some shooters such as Jitu and Narang could count themselves as unlucky to have been waylaid by the elements, others produced performances well below their personal bests. Apurvi Chandela and Ayokina Paul finished 34th and 47th in the 10m Air Rifle, the event that kicked the shooting programme off, recording scores much lower that they were registering in earlier competitions. Heena Sidhu faltered similarly in both her events, finishing 14th in the 10m Air Pistol and 30th in the 25m Pistol, an event she made the final for at the World Cup in Baku barely a month ago. Narang too struggled in his other two events, the 10m Air Rifle and the 3 Positions. The experience of having participated in three previous Olympics counted for little for Manavjit Singh Sandhu in the Trap, as he finished 16th.
"Eight members of our team were first timers, it was a young team," justifies Raninder. "There are people who have not performed also, I am not going to vilify people by taking names but I know who they are, we are going to look into everything."
While the here and now of the catastrophe in Rio will be scrutinised thoroughly, more systemic issues require attention as well. Boosted by funding from the government as elite athletes to help them prepare for the Olympics, several shooters such as Ayonika Paul in the 10m Air Rifle, Prakash Nanjappa in the 50m Pistol and Kynan Chenai in Trap, chose to work with their private coaches. Others like Jitu Rai and Gurpreet Singh received expertise from coaches at the Army marksmanship unit in Mhow.
This created an unusual situation, with national coaches appointed by the Federation, offering their counsel and guidance but the shooters also turning to their individual coaches for advise. Unlike expenses for trips for foreign exposure, training camps and foreign coaches, that are also borne by the government but routed via the Federation, this funding is delivered directly to the shooters. With the benefit of hindsight, Raninder believes that has contributed to the underperformance of some shooters.
"This is a new phenomenon at least in shooting," he says. "In the past it was always the national coach along with the support staff that would bring the team into the Olympics. Now we have found that funding has been provided at the request of the athletes for individual coaches. You train for one year with a particular coach, who has his own style and an independent thought process. Suddenly they switch to someone else who will obviously have his own take on how things should be done. This multiplicity of everyone trying to help it layers the athlete with more information than he or she needs. I am pretty sure it has caused some damage to us."
This sudden downward spiral in Rio notwithstanding, the graph of Indian shooting has been on the upswing over the last decade or so. Once Rajyavardhan Rathore broke a glass ceiling by clinching silver at Athens in 2004 and Abhinav Bindra followed up with his historic gold at Beijing in 2008, academies and training centers sprouted up across the country. Participation at national level tournaments went through the roof and Indian shooters started to win medals at international competitions consistently. Once pistol-shooter Vijay Kumar and Gagan Narang delivered two medals at London in 2012, shooting rightfully assumed the status of India's premier Olympic sport.
Quite clearly, Rio has stalled the engine of a smoothly functioning vehicle that was expected to gain speed over these last couple of weeks. The challenge will be to get the repair work started in earnest at the earliest so podium places can be claimed at Tokyo in four years from now.