Gagan Narang?s bronze set India?s medal tally rolling at the London Olympics. In this Idea Exchange moderated by National Sports Editor Sandeep Dwivedi, Narang speaks about the sport, the gold medal he missed and his academy in Pune.
Sandeep Dwivedi: Your bronze medal was very important because until then India had not won a medal. You lost out on the gold by 1 point. Can you explain to us in centimetres or millimetres, how close you were to that gold medal?
Gagan Narang: I shoot three events. In the 10 m air rifle, the bull?s-eye is 0.5 millimetres at a distance of 10 metres and the bullet is 4.5 mm long. The bull?s-eye is like a dot that you would make on paper with a pen. The highest that you can score is 10 out of 10, 60 shots with a maximum of 600 points. I shot 598.
I shoot in the 50 m prone event, which also has 60 shots and you have to shoot lying down. The prone event has a live cartridge. The bullet has gunpowder and propulsion. The bull?s eye is about 10.4 m, the size of a small button on a shirt 50 metres away.
The three position event is the hardest and the longest. It is a marathon event. You have three-and-a-half hours to shoot 120 shots. You have to shoot in three positions?standing up, kneeling and prone.
The 10 m air rifle event is always held in an indoor hall so the lighting and temperature is constant. The 50 m is an outdoor event, the temperature and the lighting varies. The wind conditions are different which makes shooting difficult.
I qualified in the final of the 10 m air rifle with a score of 598. I was very nervous about the match and my coach and I had discussed the day before that it was absolutely necessary for me to be calm before I started. I started at 9.32 a.m. and it took me 20 minutes to shoot my first record series. By 9.55 a.m., I had 50 shots left to complete in 50 minutes. Now that is a difficult task, something I had never faced before. Also, I had to take a break in between because standing for 50 minutes at a stretch makes your legs go numb and then you start losing balance which can directly affect your shooting and your scores. In the third series, I made a tactical mistake. I should have taken a break but I was in a good rhythm and I didn?t want to disturb anything. However, the 29th and the 30th shot, I scored 9 and it was then that I realised that something was wrong and I should rest. I went out, spoke to my coach, played a game on his Ipad to take my mind off the event and calm myself down. When I shot those two nines, it is very difficult because you have 30 shots left and you are already two down. These things can really affect your brain, really weigh you down. But I had faced a similar situation in the Asian Games. I was confident of overturning the deficit. However, in the end, it was more of a battle against the clock because if you do not finish shooting all 60 shots, you get a zero. The last shot is always critical for me, I tend to get a little jittery, I tend to shoot 9s. I had bet 100 pounds with my coach on whether I would shoot a 10 on my last shot. I shot a 10.7 and it was really heart-in-the-mouth stuff. I knew that the last shot would decide whether I would be in the final or not. My 10.7 helped me into the Olympic final.
We had a break of an hour-and-a-half before the final and all the shooters were to go and interact with the media. My coach told me not to talk to the media. I spent the hour in the washroom waiting for the all-clear from my coach. I was really nervous, all the demons of Beijing 2008 were dancing in my head. Again, my coach told me to play a video game and that really helped me clear my mind. The final had a new format. The scoreboard is clearly visible so you cannot avoid looking at your scores. There are announcements about the rankings of the shooter on a shot-by-shot basis. So I always knew what was happening. At one point, I was joint first but then there were a few bad shots. I was frustrated about fluctuating between ranks three, four and two and that was the reason for the bad shots. In the end, I decided that instead of shoring up my bronze medal, I should fight for the silver and gold but by then my shoulder was acting up. Aggression always has an effect on the muscles and it was then that I realised that my shoulder was not really responding and I was jerking too much. My rifle was not stable and I shot a couple of 9s. The Chinese was shooting 10s regularly and my lead was slipping. So I just let everything go and shot a couple of good shots. The Chinese shot a 10.4 in his last shot. Before I put my cheek to the rifle, I checked the monitor: I understood that I had to shoot a 10.2 to win. I was quite confident. I ended up shooting a 10.7 with my last shot and that really lifted a huge burden off me.
Sandeep Dwivedi: Now the pressure is off but how tough is it to go back to the range and start training once again?
It?s not tough because I am one of the few people who translated the long journey of training and tournaments into an Olympic medal. There were a lot of people who put in hard work but could not win a medal. I was like that in Bejing. It just depends on how you handle the situation at the time. It doesn?t mean that if I didn?t win a medal in London I would have done any less hardwork. This was a milestone that I wanted to achieve and now this medal is spurring me on to reach higher goals. I am looking forward to changing the colour of medal in Rio.
Vinayak Padmadeo: You were .4 away from a silver medal. Were you happy with the bronze or you were disappointed on missing out on the silver?
Gagan Narang: I was happy with the bronze but when I got onto the podium, I was eyeing the gold longingly. My mother wasn?t too happy. She asked me why I hadn?t fought hard enough for the gold. But mothers are all the same, they want the best for their kids.
Aditya Iyer: Shooting is an elite sport, beyond the reach of the masses. So how will this bronze inspire others to take up your sport?
Gagan Narang: I think I did my part by opening an academy and giving back to the sport while I am still an active shooter. After I got the Padma Shri, many kids told me they wanted to be shooters. I spoke to Pawan Singh in Pune and he suggested that I start an academy with a few like-minded people to give something back to the sport. I am confident that shooting, like cricket, will soon be a sport for the masses. I think the federation and other academies are doing a good job of promoting the sport. We need to have shooting ranges across states. I want many people to come forward and make the sport affordable. My parents supported me even though they faced financial limitations but 15 years on, the sport has changed, there is much more support. The federation is proactive, the government is supportive.
G S Vivek: Has more television coverage of the sport helped to increase its popularity?
Gagan Narang: Definitely. The way the finals are televised now is a great example. You saw Vijay?s (Kumar) final and all the scores were set at zero in the beginning. That was done primarily to make it easy for viewers to understand the contest. You can?t show a 60- shot match on television. A 10-shot match like the final is much more interesting. If I shoot a 599 or a 598 and people can?t see that, then there are questions as to how he scored so many points. The same system of starting off from zero is going to be applied to all other events in order to make shooting a spectator-friendly sport. The overall popularity of shooting has increased in the country. In the last one year, we have got 5,000 people to touch a rifle, visit a shooting range and these people are now following the sport. They know what a Gagan Narang, a Heena Siddhu or a Shagun Chaudhary does. It?s our responsibility to keep the results coming in order to fuel the growing interest.
Daksh Panwar: Did Abhinav Bindra?s elimination from the qualifiers affect you? When Bindra participates with you, is he a teammate or a competitor?
Gagan Narang: I have great regard for what Abhinav has done for the country. I have learnt a lot from him. I didn?t know he had been eliminated from the final as Abhinav and me were shooting in different halls. I learnt of it only when I got back to the Games Village and had a chat with him. As for the second part of the question, it?s the medal that counts.
Smriti Sinha: Before you became famous, did people you met think of you as a geek? Is shooting considered a nerdy sport?
Gagan Narang: No, not really. Whenever I have told people that I am a professional shooter they are like, ?cool?. There is a lot of hardwork and dedication, which is the same in every sport and maybe that is the reason why some people might think that it?s a geeky sport.
Daksh Panwar: Success has many fathers. After the Commonwealth Games and the London Olympics, many people have come forward to claim that you are a Haryanvi, that you are a Hyderabadi.
Gagan Narang: I am an Indian. My father is from Haryana. I was born in Chennai, but no one has claimed that so far. I shifted to Hyderabad, that is where I began shooting. Then, as I got better, I shifted to Pune because that is where my coach Stanislav Lapidus is based.
Raakesh Natraj: You said shooting is a mental game. So if you have a distracting thought, how do you handle it? If you shoot a 9, what happens to your concentration?
Gagan Narang: You realise whether you have shot well or not even before you take the shot. There is a particular sequence that I have to follow and if I do the sequence right, then I am almost certain to shoot a 10. It also depends on how you hold your rifle. There are lots of thoughts in your head but a good shooter needs to work on channelising his thoughts. It?s always good to take it shot by shot and just concentrate on the shot at hand.
Daksh Panwar: Did winning the bronze earlier in the 10 m air rifle lessen the pressure during the three-positions contest?
Gagan Narang: Prone is not my main event, it?s Joydeep Karmakar?s main event. I shot a score that was just two points less than the guy who made the finals but it was a disappointment. I was training really hard for the three-positions. Kneeling was a problem for me and I was working hard on that. I had a very bad neck spasm after my 10 m air rifle. The prone event was a disaster. I shot through the pain without complaining but I couldn?t shoot very well. I did a lot of physiotherapy in order to ease the catch in my neck. But I really struggled while shooting standing up in the three-positions event. I did well when I was kneeling and shooting. After the bronze medal, the pressure was off. I just had to do what I had to do. The first medal was in the bag and I was mentally free.
Unni Rajen Shanker: Isn?t it better to stick to one event rather than three different events?
Gagan Narang: No, I think it?s always better to have a shot at three medals rather than a shot at one. The principles in all three events are the same. The targets are pretty much the same. The three-positions event is a personal favourite because it?s very challenging. It?s also an outdoor event. However, competing in three events is difficult, it requires a lot of concentration and also, you should be able to fight the conditions and prevail over them.
*Prashant Dixit (student, EXIMS): Does luck play any role in shooting?
Gagan Narang: Yes, luck does play a part in shooting. There have been many instances where I have taken a shot and not been happy with it but it turns out to be a 10. However, I believe luck comes to only those who are ready for it.
Daksh Panwar: Don?t you think shooting offers relatively low rewards for winning an event as compared to cricket or golf where the rewards are higher?
Gagan Narang: Golf and cricket have a substantial legacy behind them. This is a different kind of sport with a different format. They are self-sustaining sports. They operate on their own. All Olympic sports need to replicate the cricket model and widen our reach.
G S Vivek: Normally, sportspersons start an academy after they have finished with their playing careers, but you had an academy before you succeeded at the Olympics. Had you lost at the Olympics, there would have been accusations that you had gone commercial and that you were distracted at the Olympics.
Gagan Narang: If I hadn?t won a medal in London, I would have failed in your eyes but not in mine. The kids in the academy have done really well and I have won this medal for them. Pawan Singh has helped and supported me at the academy. I am happy giving the academy my time. I am at the range every day. My academy has not hampered my training and I am not involved with the day-to-day activities of my academy.
Vinayak Padmadeo: Do you compete with kids who train in your academy?
Gagan Narang: Yes, I compete against them. I love the competitive spirit in the academy and if they raise their standards when they are competing against me, I am happy because they are developing into better shooters.
Transcribed by Chinmay Brahme