The Royal Artillery Barracks is proving to be India’s most successful venue in London.
Vijay Kumar, India’s new shooting star, is one of those generic names that will now be identified with great pride. Kumar, from Harsour village of Himachal Pradesh, is a subedar in the Indian Army. He now joins Colonel Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore as the most well-known Armymen-Olympians that India has produced.
As mentioned earlier, it was either going to be the spoilt-rich-brigade of Bindra and Narang, two fiercely determined young men who make the most of their advantage, or the polar opposites- hard boiled men with contrasting lives, sharpshooting products of the system like Vijay Kumar and Harpreet Singh.
Therefore, it is odd that not many Indians were aware of the existence of this slight young 27 year old shooter before these Games. Surprisingly, he has always figured amongst the top 2 shooters in his category over the last five years- and has plenty of medals to show for it. His 25 meter rapid fire pistol silver-medal win at London, was only a natural extension of his form- and came at the right time after an overly satisfied Narang failed to qualify for the 50m event.
Kumar is no stranger to success. He is a triple Gold medalist at the Commonwealth Games, but it was Narang who walked away with the accolades after winning 4 golds there. He even set the Commonwealth record for the Games in 2010 (787.5) in this same category, breaking his own 4 year old record. In 2006, he was a double gold medalist at the Commonwealth Games, and a bronze medalist in the Asian Games. His achievements are plenty, at a very young age, and he was marked for a lot more by India’s Gold Quest.
But they were well aware of India’s continual success in Asian and Commonwealth editions, but their lack of temperament at the highest level- The Olympic Games. Many shooters before him had come and gone without winning an Olympic medal, and it was only his senior Rathore who broke the mould at Athens in 2004. The Army was to be taken seriously after that, as India’s best chance to win medals in their pedigree sport- a Golden age that was kept alive by poster boys like Bindra and Narang.
Mind you, it takes a strong character to come back after failing to qualify for the 10m Air Pistol Finals- where he stood an ordinary 31st in qualifying last week. In his first Olympics, and his second event though, Kumar was not to be denied after qualifying 4th on a tough day for Indian athletes. Saina Nehwal, arguably India’s best hope at a Gold, went down to World No. 1 Wang Yihan in the semi-finals.
Narang had just failed to qualify in the 50m air rifle event, and surprise package Karmakar had finished just outside the medal places in 4th in the men’s 50m rifle prone event.
But that’s the beauty of being a relatively unknown name in a star-studded contingent. Quiet confidence is the key, and Kumar showed that in abundance through an impressive qualifying round that saw him finish 4th. The best part about this shooting format was that the slate would be wiped CLEAN for the final, a first for shooting events- in stark contrast to other events where the qualifying score is carried forward to the finals.
This meant that the 6 finalists would start afresh- which is how a conventional final is understood. This also meant that India stood a 50:50 chance to finish amongst the medals, especially after a storming first series where Kumar shot all 5 targets.
To his credit, Kumar was tied for the lead even after 3 series, with 5 series to go. The favorite, World No. 1 Russian Klimov started with a perfect 5 too, but quickly faded after his 4th series- where he shot only 2 out of 5. This meant that 21st ranked Cuban Leuris Pupo and Chinese sharpshooter Feng Ding were Kumar’s main competitors after series 5. Kumar continuously shot 4s to remain in contention, even as Ding was erratic. But it was Pupo who shot two perfect 5s to take an outright lead after 5 series, with a 23 to Kumar’s 21. For Pupo, who started with a poor 3, this was an especially impressive comeback.
Kumar desperately needed Pepo to choke if he wanted a shot at Gold, but that didn’t happen. Kumar gave it his best, with another couple of 4s, which was enough to eliminate Feng Ding after 35 shots. This meant that Kumar would go into the final round 2 points behind Pupo, on 28 to Pupo’s 30.
By now, Kumar was assured of a Silver, and he was well aware that he’d need a disaster last series from Pupo- a 2 or a 3- and he’d need to shoot a 5 himself to stay in the hunt.
Pupo shot a 4, and ended Kumar’s hopes of a Gold, and even tied the World Record of 34. Kumar finished second, a Silver medal to his name- and may have sparked wild celebrations amongst atleast two Lakh of his namesakes back in his country.
This was Cuba’s first Gold medal in Shooting, and definitely not India’s last. This was a final where the rankings became irrelevant, with triple gold medalists like Schumann not even making the cut. It was one of those unpredictable events- a refreshingly exciting shooting event that took the concept of Sudden Death to a whole new level.