National rifle coach and former Olympian, Deepali Deshpande, is confident of the Indian shooting team learning from the recent Tokyo Games and putting up an improved show in the 33rd edition of the Summer Games in Paris in 2024. The Indian shooting contingent drew a blank at the Tokyo 2020, the second successive time at the quadrennial event that the shooters came back empty-handed but with a whole lot of experience to learn from. The 52-year-old former rifle shooter who participated in the 2004 Athens Games, in which India won their first Olympic medal in the discipline through Rajyavardhan Rathore in men’s double trap, was a part of the strong Indian coaching staff at the Tokyo Olympics, which also saw the maximum number of Indian shooters.
In an exclusive chat to News18.com on the disappointment of the Indian shooters in Tokyo, Deshpande, a Mumbai resident and silver medallist from the 2002 Busan Asian Games, said she was still trying to figure out where the team went wrong after showing a lot of promise and hopes of winning quite a few medals.
Q. Going into the Tokyo Games, there were hopes of winning at least five to six medals. What went wrong?
A. Five-six medals were actually too much to expect. We were hoping for three to four medals at the Olympics. To be very honest, we are still figuring out what went wrong. The run up to the Games was so good. I personally felt that the one-and-a-half month gap between the New Delhi World Cup and departure for Zagreb (Croatia) for the camp was too long for the shooters to do nothing. I always had this feeling that we needed to have had some camp to keep the shooters active during this period. During the second lockdown in India, we were uncertain as to what we were going to do, where we were going. There was no plan. The country was in a lockdown; the cases were surging like anything. Slowly, the other countries were also suffering badly at that time. We did not have any option to go to any place.
After the first lockdown, after seven months of inactivity, we started training in October 2020. That was really very well planned. Everything went on very well. We had two long camps, we had national trials, so the shooters got some competition exposure. We had another short camp, a second set of trials, then we had the Delhi World Cup (March 2021). By the Delhi World Cup, everyone was ready. We were ready for final preparation. After that came the seven-week gap. The New Delhi World Cup ended on March 28 and the camp in Zagreb started on May 18. This gap should not have been there. There should have been some kind of a camp. But of course, these are all reflections. We are still figuring out what actually went wrong. Everyone looked so ready. Whatever issues they had at the Osijek World Cup, they were very temporary and were sorted immediately.
Q. Did the results in the Osijek World Cup, where India finished with only 4 medals (1 gold, 1 silver, 2 bronze) impact the results in Tokyo. In the earlier World Cup in Delhi, India topped the table with 15 gold, 9 silver, 6 bronze.
A. We could not have won those many medals in Osijek as we did in New Delhi, which was our home ground. In Osijek, all the European countries were there. The competition was definitely much tougher than what it was in Delhi. In the rifle section, the performance in 10m was below par. Elavenil Valarivan’s rifle had some issue, Divyansh Singh Panwar’s butt plate moved and he did not realise. These are young but inexperienced shooters. These are the kind of accidental cases and had an effect on their overall preparation going into the Olympics. Somewhere, it stayed in their minds. Elavenil recovered from the World Cup but fell a little short for the finals. She was pretty good but it boiled down to lack of experience. Hers was a little tactical error in the Olympics match. Otherwise, she shot pretty decently. Divyansh was not his own self in the match. Some say that the Osijek World Cup performance was an alarm bell, but I personally feel it was a one-off because when we went to Osijek, these guys were shooting brilliantly. We were taken aback by their performance. They can handle the World Cup pressure. That World Cup had an overall impact on the preparation for the Olympic Games.
Q. As coaches, how did you all deal with the situation in Tokyo?
A. We did a lot of introspection. We have to think hard about what we need to do. Anjum Moudgil shot brilliantly in 3 positions. We all were so focussed on 10m but we had equal chances in other events also. Even in the 25m pistol, Rahi Sarnobat was doing well but she could not perform at the Olympics. Manu Bhaker missed her finals by a whisker. In the air pistol, she tackled her gun malfunction so well and in her last shot, she needed one in a 10, she fired an 8 under pressure. The last shot decided her fate. We definitely saw a lot of prospects. These are all young kids, first timers. We have given the shooters two months’ break. The Paris Games is three years away and the next cycle will start immediately. They are all fired up. They feel like ‘Abhi de do, hum kar denge’ (give us a chance now and we will do it). This experience will teach them a lot. That is some positive to look up to. We need to make some changes. We have to develop a good system of coaching. There are so many coaches – personal coaches, coaches at the grass root level, national coaches and foreign coaches. We need to have a proper system where shooters can gradually come under the range of the national team so that there is no confusion. The situation is new. In India, you have so many qualified coaches who are actually doing a good job at the personal level. All these efforts have to be coordinated. Here, what happens is there are foreign coaches, personal coaches, national coaches, and then when you see something not happening right, you cannot interfere as there are already two coaches working on one shooter. All these things have to be worked out; some system has to be in place. And, not all personal coaches can go to the Olympics. There is a limitation to the number. All these things should be thought over and accordingly things have to be prepared, and these things have to be worked out at the earliest.
Q. Saurabh Chaudhary finished first in the qualification round in the 10m air pistol but could not win a medal, finishing seventh. Was it a case of handling pressure in the finals?
A. Even in the mixed team second round, he (and Manu) qualified with the highest score. He was a little shaky in the initial 2-3 shots but picked up. Unfortunately in the finals, by the time he picked up, it was already too late for him to cover up. I am sure he will sort it out. I think he performed very well considering his young age and his inexperience. He lived up to the expectations. Had Manu supported well, they could have made it to the podium. The expectations were not misplaced. Yes, there were some issues, internal and external.
Q. Could the Manu Bhaker-Jaspal Rana episode just before the Olympics have been avoided? Having been all along under Rana and not having him in Tokyo, did it impact Manu?
A. That is between a coach and a shooter. I don’t think anyone else can do anything about it. For any relationship, those people involved are responsible. They need to work it out. I don’t know the details. A young girl is involved and she has already taken much more than she deserved. Let her take rest for some time and come back strong.
Q. How was the mood in the camp as hopes of a medal were diminishing day by day?
A. We were disappointed. You have to understand that we, as sportspersons, shoot matches everyday but we don’t win all of them. In any sportsperson’s career, the number of failures will always be more than the number of successes. It is a part of our lives. Am glad all of them have taken this in their stride. They wanted to go and straightaway shoot in the trails in Tughlakabad. They wanted to get the feeling that they were fine. But they have been given a two-month break. They badly need that time to recover. Am sure, by the time the Paris Olympics comes, we will be more experienced and stronger.
For that matter, even the coaches in Tokyo were inexperienced. It was my first Olympics as a coach. Even for some, it was the first Olympics as a coach. Of course, Ronak Pandit had been there before as was Suma in Rio 2016 with Ayonika Paul. We did prepare a team that was good enough, but in the end, it was not good enough. We have to think it out, work it out and prepare better.
Q. Are three years enough to prepare for the Paris Games?
A. I feel three years are not enough. This Coronavirus has spoiled a lot of things. At least, this Olympics happened. Thank God whichever way it happened, this Olympics happened. That’s why these 15 shooters got a chance and some reserve shooters trained very seriously. We had a camp for the reserves in between for a month. There are some shooters who have got training and are still in practice. They are now in that zone for the next Olympics. Am sure many of the young shooters from this lot will be there for the next Olympics. And some more, definitely.
Q. The Tokyo debacle is not the end of the world for Indian shooting, is it?
A. I can imagine many are disappointed with the shooters’ performances in Tokyo. What can we do about it? We can only get up and start walking. For my generation – the likes of Suma Shirur, Anjali Vedpathak-Bhagwat, myself -we came into the sport when internationally we were absolutely nobody and nowhere. There was such a deep pit that we had to fill up and then build upon it. For years, we have done that. We will get out of this strongly. Am very sure.