Indian sport is full of stories of champions triumphing despite the system and not because of it. These are individuals who defy tremendous odds and don’t let the apathy and nepotism of administrators, and the absence of even basic sporting infrastructure hamper them. Which is why the success of India’s young guns — our shooting champions at the Asian Games 2018 — is so refreshing. In the 10-metre air pistol, Saurabh Chaudhary, 15, from a farmer’s family in Uttar Pradesh’s Kalina village, became the youngest Indian ever to win an Asian Games gold. Chaudhary is also the reigning junior world record holder in his discipline. Shardul Vihan, the same age as Chaudhary, defeated higher ranked players in the double trap on his way to a silver medal.
The Asian Games is not the first platform on which the performance of India’s young shooters has grabbed attention. Manu Bhaker, 16, won a gold medal at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games 2018 in the 10-metre air pistol. Anish Bhanwala, also 16, won a silver. At the shooting World Cup in Mexico earlier this year, five out of the eight Indian medallists were younger than 25; four of them were making their World Cup debut.
The meteoric rise of the new crop of shooters isn’t surprising. Some credit for this must go to India’s robust junior shooting programme, which was put in motion after the London Olympics in 2012. With an emphasis on specialisation, six individual chief coaches were assigned for at the senior and junior levels in the shotgun, rifle and pistol categories for the first time. Shooting was introduced as a sport in schools affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education. Also the National Rifle Association of India convinced the government to amend the arms licencing rules, facilitating shooters as young as 12 to get a firearms licence as opposed to 21 years in the past. This exemption helped many teenagers in the country practise their craft.
Helping them make the transition to the big stage, in events such as the Asian Games are former champions such as Jaspal Rana, who has mentored Manu Bhaker, and Joydeep Karmakar who has been guiding Mehuli Ghosh, the 17-year-old 10-metre air rifle prodigy. Creation of sporting infrastructure takes time and champions are seldom made overnight. Still, looking at their performance so far, one can expect our teenage shooters to have medals in their sights at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.