The numbers don't lie. For the first time since 1996, not a single Indian air rifle shooter qualified for an Olympic final, and just one shooter - Saurabh Chaudhary - of the four competing in the individual air pistol events made the finals.
Hopes for the Indian shooting contingent posting one of their best ever Olympic performances wasn't just a case of wishful thinking. Over the 2019 and 2021 ISSF World Cup cycles - the premier international competition - India was the most dominant nation by far. In six World Cups and one World Cup final (the annual year-ender), the men's pistol shooters - Saurabh and Abhishek Verma - won four gold medals, a silver and three bronze medals. Men's rifle shooters Divyansh Panwar and Deepak Kumar won a gold, a silver and a bronze. Elavenil Valarivan and Apurvi Chandela had won four gold medals between them while the women's pistol shooters - Yashaswini Deswal and Manu Bhaker - had won three golds and a silver.
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The argument that the standard of competition at the World Cups is inferior to that at the Olympics isn't really valid. At the 2019 World Cup in Beijing, for example, Panwar won silver ahead of five of the eight finalists today in Tokyo. In New Delhi, where Panwar had won bronze, he had beaten William Shaner (USA) - who would win gold in Tokyo.
So were the Olympics expectations overly optimistic? Did the shooters underperform on Saturday and Sunday? It's a little bit of everything.
To judge whether the shooters lived up to their billing, rather than look at medals won at World Cups, which depend to some extent on competition present, the more accurate assessment would be to compare their most recent scores with their Olympics scores.
This year, the Indians have competed in seven competitions or selection trials. Heading into the 2021 World Cup, the NRAI conducted a series of four trials. Following that, the shooters competed at the 2021 New Delhi World Cup, as MQS shooters (not eligible for medals) at the European Championships and the 2021 World Cup at Osijek.
Saurabh Chaudhary was one of only two shooters in Tokyo to shoot above the average score they had been shooting this year. He topped the qualification round of the 10m pistol competition with a score of 586 shot, above his average this year.
He then faltered in the final, where he usually thrives. In fact he had, before yesterday, the highest average score per shot (10.131) in finals among all 36 competitors in his event in Tokyo. In yesterday's final, though, Chaudhary shot an unprecedented four straight scores in the 9s (9.4, 9.0, 9.5, 9.7) in his first series. In his next series of five shots he shot an 8.8 and a 9.2 - a sequence that proved impossible to recover from. This was the first time ever in his senior career that Chaudhary had recorded this sequence.
Yashaswini Deswal was the only other shooter to shoot a qualifying score comparable with her average this year. She isn't a particularly strong shooter in the qualification rounds, she's more dangerous when she reaches the final. In Tokyo, though, where the qualification cut off for the final was 577, she needed to have an above average day in the range - and she didn't.
Deswal's teammate Manu Bhaker had an average qualification score this season of 579.5, which made her a contender in Tokyo. Even matching that average would have been more than enough to qualify for the final round in Tokyo - the cutoff was 577. While she lost time because of a pistol malfunction, she was in the hunt for a finals' spot until her very last shot of the competition. Bhaker needed to shoot an inner ten on her 60ths hot but in the search for perfection only managed an 8.
Abhishek Verma was also in the mix for qualification for the final until his last two shots. The cutoff for the final in his event was 579 - about the same as his average scores this year. Two shots in the 10-point ring in his final couple of shots and Verma would have qualified in 7th place for the finals. He only made two scores of 8 - the only two times he made that shot in this entire competition.
The rifle shooters were dramatically off their average scores this year and were never really in a position to qualify for the final.
A score of 628.5 was what Elavenil Valarivan needed to qualify for the final of the women's 10m rifle event -- exactly her average over the year. Yet she only shot a score of 626.5. While she is certainly capable of hitting the high scores, it is also a fact that her best scores this year have come either in the selection trials or in the MQS (non-medal) category at the European championships. In the World Cups, where she was competing for a medal and therefore the stakes were higher, her scores were 626.7 and 621.2 - in line with what she shot in the high-pressure Olympics qualification.
Apurvi Chandela's performances have deteriorated dramatically over the past year. This time last year, when the Olympics were supposed to be originally held, she had momentum - she still holds the world record in the women's final. But a weight-loss regimen during the COVID-19 lockdown changed the way her shooting jacket fit her and it affected her scores. Her performance (622.8) at the New Delhi World Cup had raised concerns but the coaches kept faith in her. And while her scores improved modestly at the European championships and then the Osijek World Cup, they once again fell to 621.8 in Tokyo - the lowest she has ever shot since the 60-shot competition was introduced for women in 2018.
Perhaps the most disappointing result from the contingent would have to be that of Divyansh Panwar. The 20-year-old had been the most consistent rifle performer for India over the last couple of years. Perhaps more should have been made of his performance at the Osijek World Cup, where he shot a sub-par 624.7. He needed to be at his very best to make the Tokyo final in an incredibly competitive field (the cut for the final was 629.2, the highest in history). Few though would have expected him to score 622.8 -- a score he has only once shot below, as a junior in 2018.
While the individual events are over, India still has strong medal prospects in the mixed team events. Hopes for a strong performance there would lie in how quickly the disappointment of the individual results are put behind them.