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Shooters 'deeply saddened' by plan to scrap 50m pistol

Jitu Rai - "Such a decision should have never been taken. To drop the free pistol event from the Olympics is unacceptable." Atul Yadav/PTI

The proposal to scrap the 50m men's pistol event from the Olympic Games has upset and angered Indian shooters. Those who competed in this event - which will be replaced with the 10m air pistol mixed gender team event - are now looking at other categories and worried about their future.

"Bahut gehra dukh hua hai (I'm deeply saddened)," Jitu Rai, currently the most high profile Indian exponent of the 50m pistol, told ESPN. "Such a decision should have never been taken. To drop the free pistol event from the Olympics is unacceptable. I've been training for it all these years."

The decision had been announced by Abhinav Bindra, who headed the committee of the International Shooting Federation (ISSF) that made this recommendation to the parent body. Jitu - No 4 in the world and a gold medallist at both the 2014 Asian and Commonwealth Games - said he would write to Bindra and the ISSF asking them to reconsider.

Prakash Nanjappa, who also competed in Rio Olympics in this event, was equally vocal in his criticism.

"The way to achieve gender equality shouldn't be through scrapping existing events, especially one that's so popular. It could have possibly been done by introducing free pistol (as the event is also called) to female shooters instead."

Jitu concedes that the obvious fallout of the decision for him would be to focus solely on his other event, the 10m air pistol, but Nanjappa says he would adopt an event that he has never tried before - 25m rapid fire pistol - and begin at the base.

Competing in the 10m air pistol and rapid fire pistol events, though, would present a bizarre dichotomy in terms of preparation for Nanjappa.

The 10m air pistol is a precision event requiring a shooter to fire 60 shots in over an hour in the qualification stage, followed by up to 20 shots in the final stage. The rapid fire event. however, requires a shooter to fire five shots in four seconds to start with.

"Preparing for both events would mean training your mind to be fast and slow at the same time. It's crazy," Nanjappa said. "Also, training for the rapid fire event is twice as much expensive both in terms of money and ammunition."

Four-time Olympian trap shooter Manavjit Singh Sandhu said the decision was a "loss for India".

"Of course free pistol would still be a part of other international meets but once an event stops being an Olympic discipline, slowly you find support, both government and private, drying up," he said. "Young shooters who've been training in the event are now bereft of an Olympic goal."

While praising the move toward gender parity, former pistol shooter Jaspal Rana criticised the choice of events picked to be booted out of the Games.

"We must bear in mind that the free pistol event has a great legacy, and is also one in which India boasts of a fair amount of representation and medal prospect with Jitu Rai and Prakash Nanjappa qualifying for the Olympics this year. I see no justification for such a call. It's a very upsetting move," Rana said.

NRAI chief Raninder Singh, who is part of the ISSF Executive Committee that will take a final decision on the recommendations, feels while the country has been robbed of a potential medal event, there's some reason for cheer.

"It's a setback for Jitu and India. But if you look at it conversely and in an unemotional manner we're getting another chance in one of our other strong shooting events - air pistol."

Anticipating a backlash, Bindra, chairman of the ISSF Athletes Committee which recommended the changes, was empathetic in his statement.

"We can understand that many athletes would not be satisfied with this. In fact, none of us are and we realize that this is a very difficult scenario. The Athletes Committee requests that everybody should look at the bigger picture and consider the many factors important for us to ensure our strong presence within the Olympic movement."

Terming it an "emotional situation", Bindra added that the Committee understood the sensitivity of athletes who would be affected by the decision.

The ISSF is currently only one of seven international federations that does not have equal number of events or quotas for men and women. With the proposal to replace three men's shooting events with mixed-gender events, in keeping with IOC's Agenda 2020, both men and women will now have six events each.

The events to be taken off the Olympic program - 50m rifle prone men, 50m pistol men and double trap men - have, however, been proposed to continue to be a part of the World Championships.

Nanjappa, though, says he draws comfort from the fact that the recommendations are subject to the ratification of the ISSF Executive Committee and Administrative Council that will meet in Delhi in February 2017. A window of hope, he feels, is still open for a possible rethink.