Recipient of Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award and Olympic medallist, Gagan Narang in an exclusive interview with WION's Sports Editor, Digvijay Singh Deo, spoke on a lot of things ranging from the life in lockdown, postponement of Tokyo Olympics, financial struggles of sporting organisations, impact of lack of live action on young shooters, his future goals and more.
Digvijay Singh Deo: This is a forced break Gagan but when was the last time you spent so much time at home...
Gagan Narang: It has actually been a blessing in disguise. After such a long time, I have been able to spend time at home with my parents and eat home-cooked food. For the last 23 years, I have been travelling all over the world because of shooting, and I have never been home for so long. So it has been a refreshing change and I have been able to recharge my batteries.
DSD: And I hear from reliable sources that you have been spending some time in the kitchen cooking up a feast..that's the tricks of the trade you pick up when you travel around the world for sport and mostly stay alone...
Gagan Narang: Yes, I try to help out as much as I can in the household. On international trips, one gets bored of the hotel food after a while. So I have made my own meals on tours in the past, you are forced to adapt to situations and that is the need of the hour. I have found myself craving home-cooked food while being on tours, so it's really great to be able to eat that home-food for a sustained period of time.
DSD: How have you been, you stay with elderly parents and you have been exercising extreme caution even when it comes to picking up essentials.
Gagan Narang: I have been going out for some relief work recently, but whenever I return I make sure I quarantine myself for a few days as a precaution. It can sometimes be a challenge to take care of my elderly parents, but I am grateful that I could spend so much time with them. It has been a very humbling experience for me. They are not used to having me around the house for such a long period of time, so one day my father absent-mindedly switched off the lights in my room while I was still in it. It is a strange situation for my parents and me but one that I am grateful for.
DSD: For a lot of people Gagan this process of self-isolation has been quite unnerving as they are just not used to being indoors and left to themselves. But for people like you and other members of the Indian shooting team, this inst very odd as shooters usually prefer solitude ...
Gagan Narang: Most events in our sport, including my event- the 10-metre air rifle- are played indoors. It is possible to train at home even when the shooting ranges are closed. In fact, I was just cleaning my gun after a long time just before this interview.
DSD: The problems for you though are not personal but more professional.you have quite a lot of academies across India and keeping them going must be extremely problematic.
Gagan Narang: Yes, it has been a tough situation because we are a not-for-profit academy. Our academies aim to widen the base of the sport at the grassroots level. So far we have managed somehow, we dug into our reserves to pay the salaries of the employees. We have adhered to all the rules of the government by shutting all our academies and sent all our staff back home. Measures are being taken to ensure that the families of the academy coaches and staff are taken care of. We have requested the owners of the shooting ranges to defer the rent payment and we will do all that we can to sustain the academies.
DSD: The government has these 'Khelo India' academies all over India, most of them are private academies that are affiliated to the Sports Ministry. Should the ministry be bailing those academies out which are struggling...
Gagan Narang: I think we have to understand that the world is going through a real crisis at the moment and sport is not one of the priorities. I think it will take some time for sport to return. All sports will definitely take a big hit. When the lockdown ends, the government should look at ways in which they can financially help these academies, which are contributing to our sporting ecosystem.
DSD: Let us look at your sport. As it stands everything is shut. You are a 4-time Olympian. Barring a few, the provisional Indian Olympic team has 11 first-timers. How do you keep them on track?
Gagan Narang: I think the training schedule of these shooters was very well planned by their coaches. There is a lot of knowledge and know-how in the Indian shooting structure now, which wasn't the case a few years back. I think their mentors will guide them well and help them figure out ways to keep themselves busy. One of the defining qualities of an athlete is that he or she is always positive, no matter what the situation. You have to be able to learn from the ups and downs in your life. Athletes are bound to go through hardships in their careers and it is only when athletes stay positive that they are able to win.
DSD: Your generation was different because the natural process and evolution of Indian shooting toughened you up, but this younger generation has only seen success and they have had access to the best facilities, how do we ensure that they stay mentally focussed and keep their skills sharp?
Gagan Narang: It is possible to do many drills at home that can keep you in the game. There is obviously no substitute to shooting at ranges, but visualisation and dry practice are some of the things that can help you keep in touch with your skills. It is impossible to be at your absolute best without training, but there is a lot of work that can be done on other aspects of your game which do not require access to shooting ranges. The younger generation has a huge advantage because they have no pressure on them, there is no baggage. They don't know fear or stress, they have achieved some great results in the last few years and they want to build on that. So they are looking forward rather than looking over their shoulders. This generation's mentality is different; participation is not enough for them nor is a bronze medal at the Olympics. They want to reach a level where they can win multiple gold medals for their country.
A few years ago, we were just happy to participate in the Olympics, but that is certainly not the case now. I believe that this break will not greatly affect the performance of the young Indian shooters and they will be competing for medal at the 2021 Olympics.
DSD: What about those Gagan who are limited by their events and can't train. The likes of Sanjeev Rajput and young Aishwary Tomar in the 50m events, the skeet boys Angad Bajwa and Mairaj Khan..they need proper outdoor functional ranges and that isn't happening.
Gagan Narang: Yes, it is a cause for concern. The shotgun events are the worst hit because it is impossible to train indoors. In the rifle events, a simulator can be used which is very similar to the real thing. I hope that the shotgun shooters get back to the range as soon as possible.
DSD: There are feasibility studies right now as to how to open up training. There are talks over quarantine camps. But at the moment the shooters are scattered all over the country and travel perhaps may not be safe. What would you suggest?
Gagan Narang: I believe that getting all the Indian shooters together in one camp would be a logistical challenge. It would also be a health and safety danger in the current crisis. I would suggest that the shooters continue training with their personal trainers and continue to be in a safe environment. They have been isolated thus far and I don't think any other risks should be taken. Possibilities could be explored of giving them access to shooting ranges close to their respective houses. That could be an ideal approach, but I believe that sporting administrators are more than capable of making these decisions on their own.
DSD: A few sportspersons I have spoken to over the course of this series suggest that mentally you should write off these months and think of this as the off-season. Easier said than done isn't it as there is bound to be anxiety about form, about retaining the Olympic quota...
Gagan Narang: As you know Digvijay, we have no real off-season in shooting, so I believe it is a welcome break for these shooters. From that perspective, I'm sure all the shooters have found ways to occupy themselves. It is natural for shooters to be concerned about the shooting calendar since there is no clarity on the situation, but that is out of their control. I would advise them to keep working on certain aspects of their game and not get stressed about things that are out of their control.
DSD: Manavjit Sandhu, one of your fellow shooting Khel Ratna awardees, says he is concerned that with the international calendar all but over for the year there is going to be a lack of competition. Now thankfully we have fantastic bench strength in rifle and pistol and your parent body the NRAI perhaps needs to schedule a robust domestic calendar to keep everyone ready.
Gagan Narang: I think a full-fledged domestic competition would be very difficult to organise because of the logistical challenges. But tournaments for about 20 shooters, who are in contention to travel to the Olympics can be arranged to keep them sharp. But even that tournament would only be possible when the lockdown restrictions are eased. There is so much uncertainty surrounding everything at the moment, even when we return to our normal lives, it will be a 'new normal'. We do now know to what extent travel will open up, so holding domestic competitions could also be a challenge. I would say the best approach would be for the shooters to continue training in a safe and secure environment and maintain a positive attitude.
DSD: Also, we have a very young bunch of shooters sitting on Olympic quotas.most of them have never known a break like this in their careers. ou are also a mentor and Elavenil Valarivan is air rifle world number one and in the mix for an Olympic berth. What is it you are telling her?
Gagan Narang: We must realise that qualifying for the Olympics is just one step in the process. But we must realise that our approach to the Olympics must not change just because of the scale of the event. Earlier, shooters used to make drastic changes to their training and schedules after qualifying for the Olympics. But this generation doesn't need to do that since they already have all facilities available to them even before qualifying for the Olympics. A shooter should approach the Olympics like any other event and give it their absolute best. A normal routine should be followed where time is also given to the family and that is what Elavenil is doing at the moment. She is taking care of her parents and making good use of this opportunity to spend quality time at home. She is working on some of her weaknesses and niggles, which will definitely help her in the long run. She is regular in her Scatt training and I keep a check on her scores. We get in touch through zoom calls once in a few days and she is keeping a positive mindset.
DSD: Is this the period Gagan where the changes to equipment etc can happen. A lot of people hold off tinkering till the Olympics but this gives you opportunity doesn’t it?
Gagan Narang: In the case of Elavenil, it wouldn't be ideal to change her equipment at the moment. We can maybe look at that when we meet so that there is better communication between the two of us. Generally, we do need new equipment from time to time, and we don't often get the time to get used to it because of the shooting calendar. We get very little time to adapt to the new technologies, so it is a challenge to be able to manage that in an appropriate manner.
DSD: With the Olympics postponed Gagan, all existing preparations have been binned. Do you agree with me when I say this will be a journey into the unknown due to the uncertainty, we may have competitions next year, we may not have. This could be a bit like that final qualifying shootout in Formula 1 where there is a sprint to the finish.
Gagan Narang: I wouldn't say that the current crisis will diminish the importance of the Olympic Games because ultimately it comes once in four years. The pressure will always be there to perform at the Olympics because it is simply the pinnacle of sport. Currently, I would advise the shooters to work on their short-term goals, but completely ignore the Olympics which is scheduled for next year.
DSD: Given the kind of experience you have, if there is no shooting calendar ready in January or February next year, how can we adapt, what should be the new approach for the sport?
Gagan Narang: I'm sure that situation will not arise. We are going to have shooting by January or February 2021. A lot of ranges in Europe have already opened and shooters have started training in staggered groups. When it comes to the approach, a lot of shooters have already hit the reset button on their clocks and preparing for events next year. Ideally, all the events that have been cancelled in 2020, should be held in the corresponding months in 2021 so that a shooter's plan is not affected.
DSD: For you personally, how has his lockdown refreshed you…you have won the full set of medals in your sport…the Olympics, World Championship, World Cup final, World Cup, Asiad and CWG…ready for another crack?
Gagan Narang: I actually was taking a break from the sport before the coronavirus crisis, so that I could spend some time with my parents. I have considered getting back to the sport, but I do not want to participate to make up the numbers. My shooting numbers are not so bad and I feel I can still compete at the highest level, but it is too early to make a decision on that. Right now, my priorities in life are different, so I'm concentrating on those things. But I have not ruled anything out, hopefully, we can overcome this crisis and then I will make a concrete decision.