For me, it has always been about the sport. The sport is the hero, the sportsperson predominantly adds on to its glory and, in the process, amasses a certain amount of personal accolades as well. Ever since I took up shooting, I have tried basing my entire work ethic on this principle. Luckily, I have not disappointed myself so far.
An athlete, every athlete owes a debt to the respective sport he or she takes up. And opening up a shooting academy was my way of paying my debt. I used to run an old training centre back in Dankuni, even before the Joydeep Karmakar Shooting Academy (JKSA) came into existence in thoughts or reality. It was in a place a little away from the central city of Kolkata. Not being in the heart of the town left the dream incomplete. I had always wanted a Shooting Academy in the city itself and in 2015, that long-standing aspiration became a physical reality in the form of JKSA.
I would like to think that we have come a long way since then. JKSA was formed in a long-abandoned godown at the SAI Eastern Centre. It was not much to go on at that point in time, but it was something. With lots of cooperation from all the right avenues, without which the Academy would have remained a wistful dream, the godown was turned into a shooting range, and JKSA was finally up and running.
Back then, I never indulged in imaginations of JKSA’s future supremacy in the world of shooting. I did not concentrate on strategies to carve a niche for the academy. From the very beginning, my sole aim was to focus on the sport itself- work preferably at the grassroots and concentrate, instead, on bringing shooting to the masses.
The philosophy behind this kind of approach was quite simple. You may be a fan, a critic, an enthusiast or an ardent supporter of Indian sports. You might have sat and rued about India’s missed chances at the Olympics. You may have watched each of these major international tournaments and asked yourself why Indians seem to miss out on opportunities at glory narrowly. And you might have also thoughtfully shaken your head in admiration at the ‘domination of the Chinese’ in most major sporting categories.
There is a reason they dominate, a reason they stand so high that sometimes, it is impossible to come within a competitive distance of them. Here is the difference. Ever so often one finds a complete shuffle in the Chinese athlete pool. It’s never about a single player or an individual athlete on whom rests the expectation of an entire country. Their training system is such that they make a hero out of the discipline and not the athlete. If one athlete fails, if one sportsperson fails to perform on any given day, there are several more who will hold up the mantle and the level of quality sportsmanship we have come to expect from them.
I have no qualms about admitting that I harbour a considerable admiration for the respect a sport receives at the hands of Chinese training academies or strategies. Remember Du Li, the double Olympic medallist? She is still in her prime. Here, we would probably wait to squeeze out as many medals and titles as we can from a single athlete before we shift our focus to start training someone else. But even with Du Li in the frame, they have shooters like Chen Ying or, more recently, Yi Siling.
In my opinion, it is critical not to lose focus on what exactly it is that we are helping to grow and develop. And that is why it is vital to ensure that one person is not made the bannerman of his or her discipline. Here, however, I would not wholly blame the system for encouraging this kind of hero-worshipping of athletes. I think, as a country, we have a specific penchant for burdening our athletes with expectations in a way that ultimately ends up belittling the culture of the sport itself. We probably end up paying more than enough attention to one standout achiever or achievement and, in the process, end up neglecting the rest. Our approach is person oriented whereas it should be sport-oriented.
So, presently, if you ask me whether I want my shooters to compete with someone like Ayonika Paul- a fantastic talent and a competent shooter, in my opinion, I would tell you that I refrain from focusing on specific names as my benchmark. Maybe my shooters may strive to achieve that someday. Perhaps they have set specific goals for themselves to reach the level of their idols but that would be a personal target. For my part, I would choose to aim higher. Mark on changing the system rather than defeating a particular name. That, for me, is the benchmark. That is the mountain I have to climb. On the one hand, I am deeply inspired by them. But there remains this hunger to defeat them at the most prominent stages of competitions.
There is no security at the top. That is what comes when you focus on bringing quality out of quantity. You increase the competition for the top spot to such an extent that this insecurity or surety becomes a motivation for athletes to become better, to train better. You need competitors. And you need a healthy environment of competition to revise your benchmarks and targets regularly. Only then can you truly excel.
I do not want my students to go through what I did as one of the rare shooters from Bengal. The lack of a partner or, more often, a competitor led to long periods of demotivation which, in turn, affected my performance. It led me to decrease my effort because there was no one for me to beat. The minute there comes someone who will be able to substantially challenge my claim to the crown, my performance and my effort will automatically increase. I will have to measure my performance relative to my competitor in the healthiest way possible and within the realms of sportsmanship. That is what will keep my performance going.
I have broken records on four separate occasions at the Nationals. For the first time that I shot a 595/600 in 2005, it was considered to be something out of the ordinary. I was lauded for my near-perfect performance because it was something no other Indian shooter had achieved before. In the ensuing years, I saw around three to four scores of 593 by Indian shooters. My performance started on an upwards curve. Between 2005-2012, I shot to reach scores of 595,597,598 & 599. The magic sauce here was motivation- lots of it.
I count Mehuli Ghosh among my most prominent successes. I say “prominent” because her name has undoubtedly created a buzz within the shooting circuit that is steadily growing louder every time she puts up a remarkable performance. Towards the end of 2016, she claimed a total of nine medals at the Nationals in Pune. She then finished 7th at a junior championship in the Czech Republic and even went on to lead India to the World Junior Shooting Championships in Germany. And to top it all off, the closing days of 2017 brought with it another piece of success.
At the 10th Asian Air Gun Championships in Tokyo, Mehuli came out on top in the 10m Air Rifle Youth category. Additionally, she bagged a second quota spot for India for the Youth Olympic Games. Not only did she top her qualifying rounds with an impressive 420.6 but she also put up a tough fight in the finals. She inched ahead of two girls from China with consistently high scores in each round. In the end, the difference between her Gold medal-winning score and Silver medallist Mingwei Gao’s score was a mere 0.1 points. And then an 11 medal haul & 3 National Records at the Nationals within a span of a weeks time.
Mehuli’s presence in my academy definitely has its positives too. For a long time, she was unassailable here. She was an inspiration to the many other shooters in the Academy and they, in turn, performed to their best to always keep both her and themselves motivated.
At the beginning of 2016, a 15-year old from Rajasthan came to us. She wanted to improve on some technicalities of her shooting, and she thought JKSA would be the right place for it. Then, the unthinkable happened. She shot a score of 420.8 during one of her practice rounds. What is worth noticing is that she beat Mehuli’s personal best training score of 420.7. What is even more remarkable is that the current World Record stands at 420.6. I was a proud mentor at that point.
It is a symbiotic relationship, you see. The athletes help each other. Shooters other than Mehuli are being trained, in fact, to beat Mehuli and maybe even surpass her. It is something I continuously tell all my students. Be an athlete first. Focus all your energy on building yourself up. Becoming a champion comes easy then.
Today, if Mehuli is defeated- and she has been so several times during training, she can take that defeat with a smile. She can take it as an incentive to come out on top in the next instance. That is determination, and that needs to be inculcated and encouraged. The culture of sport, therefore, is built on a lot of things which people tend to disregard. There is a kind of psychology that creates champions, and I am still in the process of creating that sort of environment.
As with anything, none of this is easy. Here I am working at the grassroots, concentrating, as I said before, on bringing the sport to the people and expanding it at a fundamental level. Most of my students are junior level shooters. But there are those who, even though late in taking up the sport, have excelled beyond comprehension in a brief period. I would like to think that JKSA has played some part in forging a new direction for these shooters.
In January 2016, a lady in her early 30s came to me with an intention, a mission. Her first question to me was whether one could take up shooting at this age, an age which, for an athlete, is considered well past her prime. One and a half years later, Koeli Dalmiya had won the Silver in the State Championships. And what’s more? She will be playing in the Nationals too. That is the kind of success story that is fulfilling, isn’t it?
Truthfully, with this kind of philosophy in mind when it comes to training athletes, I would probably consider the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) still needs a lot of tweaks and improvement as one of the most rigged facilities in the country to the point where it is fruitless. The elite athletes on the list include names who may not have performed well while many deserving names have been left out. People belonging to the system or having a good knowledge how the system works can rig it, and manipulation can lead to extraordinary favours. I do not believe in nepotism. Neither do I believe in lobbying for special favours. The overall policy may sound good on paper but can a foolproof execution be assured?
It is easy, and maybe even comfortable, to believe that our new Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore might do something to aid this athlete-centred approach- given that he has been a part of the circuit as well. But that kind of optimism would be foolhardy. The fact remains that because of the Government’s bureaucratic structure, some real potential may even fail to come to his notice.
Similarly, positive results can theoretically also be expected under the Pan India scholarship proposed under the Khelo India program.
I was at the receiving end of this loophole before the London Olympics in 2012. I was ruled out as a serious medal contender and was given money merely two months before the event. With that, I trained in Germany for that period, and well, I did what I did. I was still not judged to qualify for the TOP Scheme for Rio.
The responsibility of selecting the athletes should fall on the National Sports Federations with credible individuals or groups with high level of sports exposure and not some arbitrary middlemen. Time should be given to the athletes to prove their position in such lists before it is forwarded finally to the Sports Ministry for further contemplation.
If we speak and act with a strictly on-ground perspective, our outlook tends to become myopic and limited, and this is something which I feel is dangerous. A proper birds-eye view of the philosophy of sport in India is highly diluted. It is not about the gun or the astroturf or the basketball or the football or the sprint track. You cannot force a miracle by hero-worshipping a single athlete. And this flawed philosophy exists on every level in India- be it the coaching system, the administrative system, the government and all other possible stakeholders. Putting an athlete up on a pedestal will get you nowhere. No person decides to be great. Greatness is effortless. That is what needs to be accepted. Strategies can follow when you recognise this.