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Bindra on board but NRAI's Rio inquiry may miss target

Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

There's a shootout possibly going down in Tughlaqabad soon. That might be a bit too dramatic but the early rounds of the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI)'s investigations of the shooters' Rio Olympics performance suggest a standoff of some sort is on the cards.

By picking Abhinav Bindra, India's greatest shooter, to head its fact-finding panel, the NRAI - headquartered in the shadow of the gorgeous 14th century Tughlaqabad Fort in Delhi - has opened itself to a scrutiny of its operations. It has also potentially set itself up in opposition to Bindra, who has publicly voiced his differences with part of the NRAI's brief for the panel.

It is not yet pistols at dawn because rifle shooters are not emotionally charged, tantrum-throwing divas. Like he does with his equipment, Bindra is given more to carefully putting together and taking apart arguments of several kinds. What is clear, though, is that the shooting contingent's adventures or misadventures in Rio are being looked from two diverse sights.

The shooters went to Rio swathed in superlatives. India was sending out its biggest contingent to an Olympics. The NRAI was the most handsomely supported national sporting federation between London and Rio (receiving Rs 43.36 crores in government funding between 2012-12 and 2015-16), and as many as 14 shooters were given special sports ministry grants for their Games preparation and training. However, only two shooters made the finals and the contingent returned home empty-handed.

The NRAI would like the panel headed by Bindra to look at that fiasco through the prism of the shooters' Olympic meltdown. As NRAI's president Raninder Singh told ESPN, it seeks to identify, "in a cold and ruthless manner, the causes of our poor showing." Its approach is more a forensic audit of sorts, an examination of possible external factors rather than the pain of introspection.

Bindra has a different view. "You can't change what has happened. We have to look at how the future is being prepared and nurtured." The problem, to him, needs to be treated by looking at Indian shooting in general as a competitor who had failed when he had been expected to succeed. Bindra wants the competitor put back on its feet and competing again. He wants to inspect junior-level structures, the competitive calendar and the expertise at hand and "cut down variables" that led to errors.

Among the specific issues Singh has clearly identified as having caused the disappointing results is the NRAI's decision to allow the shooters their choice of personal coaches. Singh called this a "tactical blunder" by the NRAI. Bindra's response was to suggest that there was always going to be "multiple layers" of coaching. This, he pointed out, is not a team sport, it's an individual sport and so the view of the athlete is very important - "they have a good idea of what they need and they are the ones to deliver the results."

More contentious would be Singh's finger-pointing at shooters seeking individual help or being contracted to what the NRAI considered "non-benign private sponsorship organisations." What irks the NRAI, it appears, is their ability to act independently "without any form of coordination" with the ruling body and "the conflict it induces with the NRAI/SAI- driven programmes."

The birth and growth of these "non-benign" organisations have taken place over the last decade in response to the inability of most Olympic sports federations to do their fundamental duty: build the grassroots base and support their elite performers with competitive calendars and training schedules. The efficiency and speed of these private organisations in providing expertise to the athletes in training and medical intervention along with the goodwill they generate has not gone down well with either the federations or the sports ministry, which provides a bulk of the financial support to every Olympic sport. It has, in some ways, reduced the dependence of the athlete on the federation.

Bindra's opinion on these bodies, who have worked with him, is pragmatic: "Until and unless those resources and know-how are available not only to the elite but also to the grassroots, we will always struggle and the role of such organisations cannot be thrown away."

Curiously, assisting Bindra on the panel is Manisha Malhotra, the former tennis player who had driven the first of these "non-benign private" organisations, the now-defunct Mittal's Champions Trust.

To give the NRAI credit, it could not have found two more independent thinkers in the business to be part of a panel to look into the shooting performance in Rio and, from there, into its own functioning. Whether it will appreciate their approach and heed their advice is another matter altogether.