Balconies, cupboards, patchy internet create one-of-a-kind shooting competition

Rifle shooter Sanjeev Rajput participated in the online shooting competition from his basement. Facebook/IndianShooting

627.8 is a solid but not spectacular qualification score in the 10m air rifle event. It's not something, for instance, guaranteed to qualify a shooter for the final of a high level competition. You would assume that it isn't a score that World No.1 and two-time World Cup gold medallist, Divyansh Panwar, would be too excited over.

"In his last training session, which wasn't even a good one, he shot 628.3," explains his coach Deepak Dubey. But Panwar had reasons for the giant smile on his face after shooting that score on Wednesday.

To understand why, you have to go back a couple of days, when coach Dubey called Panwar over to his home, just two houses away in the same apartment complex in Faridabad, with a project in mind -- to prepare for a Zoom call.

Over the last few weeks, even as the world has methodically shut itself down in a bid to curb the spread of COVID-19, the video conferencing app has become a staple for family and business meetings around the world. On Wednesday evening, it served as a platform for a shooting competition. One in which Panwar was taking part.

Shooting tournaments, like those in every other sport across the world, have ground to a complete halt. For Panwar, the situation was even harder. His Olympic dreams had anyway been pushed back a year, but now India's 21-day lockdown has left him stuck at home with no way of training either.

"Over the last few months there's been no competition at all. Now with the lockdown, there wasn't even any way for him to live fire. It got shooters really bored and frustrated. The quality of training and focus starts to slip if there isn't any competition. There's only so much yoga and mock firing you can do."

Online shooting competitions aren't new, he explains: "But I've only heard of them being organised in Germany where the athletes are far from each other and the technology is better."

As such, with players starved of competition, and isolated hundreds if not thousands of kilometers away from each other, this online competition, one organised by former international shooter Shimon Sharif, who runs the indianshooting website, was a godsend.

But first, Panwar had to build a single lane shooting range from scratch. On Monday, Dubey borrowed an electronic target setup from another colleague who lives in the same neighbourhood. He and Panwar then cleared a ten metre long path in the latter's house to create space to jerry rig a single lane shooting range. Panwar's shooting station began in Dubey's bedroom, while he aimed past a couple of open doors and a corridor at a target that rested in the back of a clothes shelf. It wasn't pretty, but it had to do.

With motivations similar to those of Panwar, 40 pistol and rifle shooters from seven countries across the world joined a call titled "International shooting challenge". Panwar wasn't the only shooter of calibre to take part. Six-time World Cup gold medallist Manu Bhaker was shooting in the women's 10m air pistol event while the current World No.1 in that event, Veronica Major, also lined up to compete.

"This was similar to the qualification round of a regular shooting competition. The shooters had a 15-minute session in which to sight their targets and then an hour in which to fire 60 shots in series of 10s."

All of them placed their mobile phones on a stand where their shooting position and a laptop screen that showed where their shot had landed on the electronic target, was visible. They proceeded to compete in what was billed as a one-of-a-kind online shooting competition.

This was similar to the qualification round of a regular shooting competition. The shooters had a 15-minute session in which to sight their targets and then an hour in which to fire 60 shots in series of 10s. It's a format of shooting competition that Sharif reckons has potential to grow especially considering the ISSF has called off competition for the remainder of the year. But there are certainly kinks that will have to be worked out.

This isn't the controlled environment that shooters are used too. Instead of firing in a line in a perfectly air-conditioned hall with precise lighting (1000 lux on the target- 800 lux on the shooting position), shooters were competing in whatever conditions they could. Panwar's setup wasn't the only DIY one. Manu Bhaker was shooting in a covered balcony at her home, Sanjeev Rajput was shooting in his basement, Scotland's Isobel MacTagart was shooting from around a staircase while former World Cup silver medallist Amanpreet Singh was firing through open doors in the same fashion as Panwar. At least those shooters managed to find ten meters of space - France's Germond Etienne would confess after shooting a strong score of 629.4 that there was only 7m between him and his target.

There were other limitations of the conference video call format that were only apparent once the competition started. Rajput, for instance, forgot to switch from the sighting mode to the competition mode and having put his phone on mute and, shot several shots that wouldn't be recorded before he was alerted of the mishap.

Many of the shooters also suffered data connectivity issues - Bhaker saw her signal snap in the middle of competition while seven-time World Cup winner Peter Siddi opted out of the competition even before it started (he ended up doing commentary instead) since there was no way to get a mobile signal past the thick walls of his shooting range.

Bhaker's signal woes were only one of her problems on Wednesday. She would end up scoring a poor 572, perhaps her lowest qualification score in the last couple of years. Most shooters shot far lower scores than they would have been used to - Veronica Major who won two gold medals at last year's Delhi World Cup - finished with 569.

"It's going to be difficult for them because they haven't had any competitive practice. So it's unfair to expect them to shoot high scores like they would have been used to," says Dubey.

But even while their shooting egos might have taken a bit of a public bruising, the shooters admit they wouldn't have missed the competition. Even Amanpreet Singh, who initially had second thoughts about taking part considering he hadn't even trained for a couple of months, was excited.

"Yesterday, I practised for the first time in two months. Initially I was scared I wouldn't even get past 560 and nothing was coming to my head because I was so out of practice. But I'm glad I could at least take part in some competition," says Amanpreet, who eventually had the best air pistol score of 576.

That experience of competition, even if their competitors might not be physically present alongside him, was what Panwar was most grateful to see replicated.

"It was the same pressure that you feel in a regular competition. I wanted to see how others are doing. It was that same feeling of competition. It didn't matter if it was online or not," said Panwar who eventually finished fourth behind Martin Strempfl (632.5) Meghana Sajjanar (630.5) and Germond Etienne (629.4).

The overwhelming sentiment at the end of the competition was simply about doing it once more.

"It was a great experience to play this match. This time, all the ranges are shut. After so long khelne ka chance mila hai (I got a chance to play)."