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Trap troubles: How India's marquee shooters missed the flight to Tokyo

India's Kynan Chenai competes in the men's trap team final at the New Delhi World Cup. MONEY SHARMA/AFP via Getty Images

A collector of knick-knacks from cities where he competes in, trap shooter Kynan Chenai's most prized trinket is one he picked up in Rio de Janeiro when he competed in the 2016 Olympics. "Those were my first Olympic games. They are etched in my mind. It's the ultimate competition for any sportsperson and especially for a shooter," says the 28-year-old.

Chenai isn't likely to add another Games trinket to his collection anytime soon.

The ISSF World Cup that concluded in New Delhi was the last tournament Indian shooters will compete in prior to the final announcement of quota places for the Tokyo Olympics. Although India has won a record 15 quota places over the last three years, not a single quota was picked up in the men's trap event. This means that for the first time since 1992, the Indian shooting contingent at the Games is unlikely to feature a representative in the men's trap event.

It's a dismal scenario, especially when you consider how synonymous trap has been with shooting in India. "Trap has always been the marquee sport in shotgun shooting. Not just in India but worldwide. It's perhaps the toughest category and the best talent usually goes there. From an Indian perspective, we have a great lineage in trap. That's why it was even more disappointing not to be able to earn a quota," says two-time Olympian Manavjit Sandhu.

Indeed, the shooting range the New Delhi World Cup was conducted in is named after Karni Singh, who represented India over five successive Olympics in the discipline.

On Sunday, NRAI president Raninder Singh squashed any hopes that India might still send a representative in the trap event in Tokyo by substituting it with a quota won in another event. Although India had switched a quota in Rio, sending trap shooter Manavjit Sandhu in place of Sanjeev Rajput (men's 50m 3 position event), he said there would be no repeat. "I'm looking at where we have a realistic chance of bringing jewellery back from Tokyo," said Raninder, himself a former silver medallist in the trap event at the 2017 National Championships.

What explains this lack of representation?

Coaches, officials and shooters say it's a combination of the transition of a core group of senior shooters, a lack of urgency in blooding youngsters, a reduced number of Olympic quotas in the men's trap event and finally some rank bad luck when it mattered most.

Poor Transition

"There was a time when the Indian team would walk into a competition at least in Asia, and we'd have a little edge. We'd have a little confidence because our team was that strong," says national coach Mansher Singh, a four-time Olympian who has won medals in the Asian and Commonwealth Games. "We always had a mix of experience with younger shooters. For a long time we had someone who had the experience of competing in the Olympics," he says.

That has changed over the last couple of Olympic cycles. Mansher retired following the 2012 Olympics and Manavjit, the only Indian shotgun shooter to win a gold at a World Cup, has struggled with injury post the 2016 Olympics.

That in turn, says Mansher, has meant that there's suddenly a lot of pressure on the next line of Indian shooters to perform on the international stage. For India, over the last couple of years this has meant Kynan Chenai. "If you are someone like Kynan, there's always this knowledge that there's not a lot of fellow shooters who can shoulder the responsibility. If you are competing in a World Cup or a qualification event, there's this pressure that if it isn't you, there's no other Indian who is going to make it to the final," says Mansher.

Slow integration of junior programmes

Mansher, who has been in charge for a couple of years now, admits there has been a problem in the way shotgun, and specifically trap, couldn't follow on the success of their peers in pistol and rifle events.

"The rifle and pistol guys built on their junior programmes and were able to integrate those upcoming youngsters with the seniors," he says. "We were a little shortsighted in not following the junior programme as [they did]. They began focussing on the junior shooters from back in 2011. We didn't change our approach until 2018."

"We were spreading ourselves too thin and just concentrating on supporting the top 18 senior shooters over the whole year."

There was little reason for this to be so, since there was no shortage of talent coming up through the ranks.

At the 2019 shotgun shooting nationals, a record 224 trap shooters had taken part -- a steady rise from 167 in 2018 and 146 in 2015. The cut-offs for the final were the highest on record too - seven participants were tied at 120 targets shot out of the sky (out of a maximum possible 125).

There have been other self-inflicted wounds too. In 2018, India let go of long-term coach Marcello Dradi, who had coached several generations of Indian shooters. No foreign coach has yet been named as a replacement.

Reduction in men's quotas

Following the 2016 Games in Rio the men's double trap event was axed, the number of participants in the men's trap event cut from 33 to 29 and those in the women's programme increased from 22 to 29.

"It's not fair to compare different generations of shooters but the fact is that it's gotten a lot harder for the men's trap shooters to qualify for the Olympics than before," says Mansher.

It's not just India who have faced the brunt of reduced quotas. Mansher points out that Italy, who have won 43 gold medals in trap at the World Championships - more than any other country - have also not won a single quota in men's trap for the 2020 Olympics.

"It should not be an excuse but it has definitely become harder to qualify when there are fewer quotas," says Albano Pero, coach of the Italian men's team. While the increased women's quota provided a bit of relief for the Italians - qualifying two women shooters for the first time -- India, with a far weaker women's programme, couldn't qualify anyone.

This is what had brought Italy to New Delhi -- the possibility of qualifying via a ranking quota if they could win a gold here. While Chenai had a small mathematical chance to qualify via the same ranking point route -- his fourth-place finish in the trap event in New Delhi -- an event that the Italian Valerio Grazini eventually won, has almost certainly sealed his fate.

A dash of hard luck

Chenai has not shot badly over this qualification cycle.

He made the final in New Delhi with a strong score of 121 in qualifying. He had topped the qualifying at the 2019 Asian Championships -- the last opportunity to win a direct Olympic quota -- with the same score. He had only needed to finish 5th in the six-man final to qualify (even making the final would have been enough if men's trap had the same Olympic quota available as in 2016) but had finished last after issues with his corrective glasses in low light.

Earlier that year, he had shot an even higher score of 123 in the Acapulco World Cup. That would have been more than enough to make a final on any other occasion, but not so in an event where James Willett shot a perfect 125, four other shooters shot 124, and Chenai's 123 was shot by another six.

"It's been a year where we weren't as lucky as we would have hoped," Mansher says.

Raninder admits this too. "We will have an analysis on what needs to be done. We need to see what we can do to improve but it's hard to be critical of a shooter who has shot 121 and 123 in competition," he says. Mansher believes the recent struggles are simply a 'bad phase' that the team is going through. "They aren't bad shooters. There's no deep systematic failure that need to be addressed but aren't," he says.

Now, eyes on Paris

On the final day of the world cup, an Indian team comprising Chenai, Prithviraj Tondaiman and 22-year-old Lakshay Sheoran beat Slovakia -- two of whose members have qualified for the Tokyo Olympics -- in a (non-Olympic) men's team event. "This was an important win. Slovakia is a very strong European team. To be able to beat them shows we have the potential to compete against the best in the world," says Mansher.

And that indeed is what Chenai is looking forward to doing. "We have a young team that's very hungry for success. We haven't had a lot of success but we are doing the right things. Eventually things will turn around. We might not be going to Tokyo but we are already preparing for the Paris Games," he says.