Gold in sight for shooting stars

By David Leggat

Time was when sports shooting was the preserve in India of royalty and army personnel.

That's all changing and it is now one of the country's most successful, and popular sports.

At the Melbourne Games four years ago, shooting was India's biggest source of gold medals, with 16 of the 27 being gold.

Pistol shooter Samaresh Jung won six gold medals in Melbourne, and became known as "Goldfinger".

And it was no surprise that India's first two gold medals at these Games came at the Karni Range on the outskirts of Delhi.

As of midway through day seven of competition, the hosts have rattled up 21 medals, 12 of them gold, with rifleman Garan Narang leading the way with four.

The impressive Games shooting complex is on the border of Delhi and Haryana states, and that is the home territory of cricket's buccaneering allrounder Kapil Dev.

For all the accolades heaped on international cricket's greatest runscorer, Sachin Tendulkar, he is probably India's most charismatic cricketer of the last 30 years.

But the face of Indian sport is changing.

Cricket remains the country's biggest sporting passion, hockey not far behind, but shooting is at the forefront of a rise in individual sports, wherein athletes can now see selection being achieved on merit rather than relying on being chosen to fit into a team.

A collection of medals spread over several Commonwealth Games, and the Olympic silver medal at Athens in 2004 won by double-trap shooting Rajyavardhan Rathore, helped thrust shooting into the Indian consciousness.

Key to the rise of the sport was a change of direction in the 1990s where three things happened: India gained shooting heroes, such as Manavjit Singh, who became world trap shooting champion, ammunition became more freely available, and ranges sprouted up across India.

So the twin planks of accessibility and inspiration were put in place.

Four times in seven years from 2002, a shooter won the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award, the supreme sports award in India.

Two years ago, Abhinav Bindra became India's first individual Olympic champion in the 10m air rifle competition.

His rivalry with Narang, who has overtaken him as air rifle world champion and who has four of the six gold medals he's chasing in Delhi, has excited the nation.

Bindra has talked of the "pressure of living up to the expectations of the home crowd".

"Winning the gold medal was hard task, there is always huge pressure on sports persons to deliver in front of the home audience," he said.

So far they seem to be handling the heat, in all senses, with aplomb.

- NZ Herald

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