Trailblazer: How Anjali Bhagwat's 2000 Sydney Olympics final sparked India's shooting stars

At the 2000 Sydney Games, Anjali Bhagwat became the first Indian athlete to make an Olympic final since PT Usha in 1984. SAM PANTHAKY/AFP via Getty Images

Sydney, September 16, 2000. Anjali Bhagwat walked away from her Olympic shooting lane, lugging her Feinwerkbau T70 rifle, telling herself she tried. She'd shot a solid 394 in the 10m air rifle qualifying round, but was certain it wasn't enough to put her in top-eight contention in the 49-shooter field. "'Chalo beta, ho gaya tumhara Olympics (Alright, kid. Your Olympics is done)', I told myself," says Bhagwat, rewinding to the 2000 Sydney Games. "As I packed my rifle, my mind raced to what the next Games would be like and if I'd be in it."

Her thoughts were interrupted by coach Laszlo Szucsak: She'd finished seventh and was going to shoot in the final. "I froze for a second and then heard myself shriek 'really'?" Yes, really: Anjali had become the first Indian athlete since PT Usha at the 1984 Games to make an Olympic final.

"We went to the preparatory area and I peeped through the crack of the door. I saw a couple of SAI [Sports Authority of India] officials chatting among themselves and members of the Indian media in the gallery. I was nervous, excited, overjoyed. I realized they were there for me. There was only one tiny problem. I wasn't prepared to shoot in an Olympic final. I didn't know what to do."

Bhagwat finished eighth among as many shooters with 99.1 after a shoot-off with South Korea's Choi Dae Young. But for Bhagwat and Indian shooting, an Olympic final appearance was course-altering, record-melting. In two years' time she went on to become the first Indian shooter to win a World Cup and also the first to climb to the world No 1 spot. And today India's shooters are among the world's best, breaking records, winning top international tournaments and poised to make a mark at the Tokyo Olympics till the pandemic came in their way.

Ironically, Bhagwat almost never made to the Sydney Olympics: She was a last-minute 'hardship quota' (wildcard) entrant. Abhinav Bindra, who would go on to win an Olympic gold eight years later, was then a teen prodigy who had, months before, equalled the junior world record at the Munich World Cup. Bhagwat too was coming off a sparkling season with three gold medals and a silver at the 1999 Commonwealth Championships. Neither though had won quota places for the 2000 Olympics. The national shooting federation wrote to the ISSF, applying for wildcards for both Bindra and Bhagwat. Soon after, Bindra's entry was approved by the world body. There was no word on Bhagwat's chances of getting in. She had good reason to presume she'd missed her shot.

In his autobiography A shot at history, Bindra describes the dilemma he faced then: "The first to get the 'hardship quota' was me; the first to feel uncomfortable about it was also me. Anjali Bhagwat, who'd made the finals of World Cups, was shooting better than me, better than anyone, she deserved it more than me or anyone else. But I was young and the world loves a prodigy, so maybe that is why I got it...So I did the only decent thing possible: I wrote to Anjali and said it's yours. I was ready to transfer my quota to her. My parents might have been stunned, but I was sure in my mind."

Before matters could come to such a pass, though, Bhagwat's wildcard came through. It left her, however, with very little time to arrange for ammunition clearance. "Back then there was barely any awareness and understanding of the sport and its requirements. One of the clerks at the DGsP (Maharashtra Police) thought I was talking about shooting a movie. Police clearance was needed and airlines too were struggling with the concept of allowing passengers to carry pellets. I couldn't manage to get it done in time and eventually landed in Sydney for my first Olympics without ammunition."

Coach Szucsak then took her to the makeshift factory unit of equipment and ammunition manufacturers camping at the Games. Competing shooters usually raided these shops for last-minute barrel checks, and equipment fine-tuning in keeping with wind and velocity conditions. "And here I was without ammunition at all," says Bhagwat. "The manufacturers were shocked and almost instantly I had an ammunition sponsor on board."

The night before her match, Bhagwat couldn't sleep. She got out of bed and paced about the room. She had her pre-event training at the venue a day ago. She'd seen the range, her lane and where her competitors would be stationed. "I visualized the arena, pictured myself taking position and China's Zhao Yinghui, then reigning world No 1 and medal favorite, standing in the adjacent lane. I imagined myself in complete control of my shots. The next day, when I reached the arena, everything felt familiar. I just had to let my mind take over."

Bhagwat took part in three Olympics but the Sydney trip remains her most fulfilling one. It extends to reasons beyond performance. It was the first time she found herself being acquainted with the work ethic of athletes from disciplines outside her own and experienced the community feeling of sport. At the Games Village, two-bedroom cottages were shared between four athletes. Swimmer Nisha Millet was Bhagwat's roommate with lifters Karnam Malleshwari and Kunjurani Devi staying in the adjoining room.

"Nisha would leave for training well before dawn, while it was still dark," she told ESPN. "Then at around 4am Malleshwari and Kunjurani's coach would come outside our cottage and yell their names, asking them to wake up. My sleep would be ruined. I'd be cursing them in my half-awake state since I had my practice session only at 9am, sometimes only around afternoon. I remember Kunjurani was off her weight category by a few grams and how she was put off food and water for some time so she could shed it off. I saw the physical demands involved in swimming and weightlifting from very close quarters and was secretly grateful for belonging to a sport where fitness and strength weren't paramount."

Two days after Bhagwat made the final, Malleshwari won a bronze medal in the 69 kg event, also India's only medal to show for its outing in that Games. Bhagwat, Millet and Szucsak sat huddled before the TV at the SAI office in the Village. Szucsak was divided between rooting for his homeland - Hungarian lifter and eventual gold medalist Erzsebet Markus - and Malleshwari. "When Mallu's bronze was confirmed, we leaped out of our chairs and hugged each other. One of us had won. When she returned to the Village, our Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajyapee was on the phone line at the SAI office, calling to convey his congratulations. Her medal, I joked, had finally earned her my forgiveness for all my sleep she'd robbed."

Bhagwat's final appearance at the Olympics, the first-ever for an Indian shooter was supposed to knock down a few doors, serve as an endorsement for the athlete-coach combination of Bhagwat and Szucsak and the wonders of hired technical expertise. Instead, when they returned to India after the Games, they learnt that the Hungarian's contract had not been extended. Szucsak had to leave.

Two years before Sydney, Bhagwat along with fellow female rifle shooters Deepali Deshpande, Suma Shirur and Kuheli Ganguly camped outside the SAI office for five days straight. They were armed with a proposal and weren't ready to give up on it without being heard. "We had been going for international events year after year but weren't winning medals," says Bhagwat. "The 1998 Commonwealth Games were an eye-opener. We noticed the stance, equipment and preparedness of shooters of other countries was vastly different. Malaysia finished with a surprise haul of eight shooting medals in that Games. We had heard of how their coach had turned around the sport in the country. We knew he was the right guy for us." It was Szucsak.

When the Games came to a close, the girls went up to him and asked him if he'd be interested to come to India and coach them. They were almost sure their "offer" would be turned down. "Instead he smiled and replied, 'Why not'?", recalls Bhagwat. "Those days Indian shooting was still trying to find its way and we were this band of girls, most of us former NCC cadets, who were ready to fight and try to make things work. One day we were fighting over getting bathroom doors fixed at the Nehru Stadium, the next it was about convincing SAI that a foreign coach's technical guidance would help improve results. After five visits, SAI agreed."

The first thing Szucsak did once he got to India was to get shooters to switch to Korean canvas kits and turn national camps into a permanent fixture. Deshpande once got her kit stitched by a local tailor in Mhow for an international event which ended up resembling sleeping attire rather than competition apparel. In a sport decided in decimals, the right kind of clothing can be the difference between medal and no medal.

"I noticed the jackets and trousers they were using were soft," Szucsak tells ESPN, "I promised them that once they changed to better quality kits, they'd see a jump in scores. We cranked up training intensity and made camps a regular affair. The common training really helped the bunch of shooters then to work off and polish each other. The conditions weren't easy. We used hand-operated targets and didn't have electronic scoring. Whether it was Deepali, Suma or Kuheli, they were all really gifted shooters, I just had to tweak the way a few things were being done. Anjali, of course, is the best talent I've seen in my entire coaching career."

Between the girls, there was no room for rivalry or hard feelings. "Anjali and I belong to the same state (Maharashtra), went to junior college, NCC and even entered shooting together in 1988," says Deshpande, who together with Bhagwat and Shirur, won the team event silver at the 2002 Asian Games.

"Those days, everything that's almost effortless today was tedious and took forever. Ammunition wasn't easily accessible and getting an import license approved took up a whole year. It was almost as if time stood still and even when I went to the Olympics as a 32-year old, I felt young. When Anjali won at the 1999 Commonwealth Championships, none of us felt jealous. It was more a relief. We had been in the sport for 11 years without a major breakthrough in results. It was almost like 'arre koi toh jeeto' (somebody, please win!). Her making the Olympic final was sort of barrier breaking for us, mentally. Finally, one of us had arrived."

Bhagwat too points out that the logistical everyday challenges of training, competition, getting clearances and generally getting things done were so steep in the sport then that fighting each other would have only worked to a disadvantage. "When I made a final for instance, the other girls would help in carrying my equipment and water to the range, sit behind me, even though they themselves were tired after competing. I would do the same for them as well. Ek doosre ka sahara leke hi hum yaha pahunch paye hai (Only by helping each other out, did we make it so far). Also, there was no second rung after us then, unlike today where anyone can be easily replaced because of the sheer quality in numbers."

Beyond the bold newspaper headlines, however, Bhagwat did not immediately fathom the impact of making an Olympic final. "It was only two years later, when the number of girls pouring into our event rose and I came across interviews mentioning how Sydney had influenced some of them, that I actually sat back and thought to myself, "Well, I didn't do so bad, after all!"

Today, three Indians including world No 1 Elavanil Valarivan, find themselves among the top 10 women's 10m rifle shooters. Szucsak occasionally logs on to the NRAI website to check updates on the national shooting scene and finds himself scouring for Indian names during his many travels as coach of the Hungarian team. "Today, India has the brilliant Anjali Moudgil and Valarivan," he says, "The Indian shooters headed for the Tokyo Games are a much stronger bunch than the Rio squad. I see them as being in good medal contention. It all started with Anjali. She sure cracked open that door for a generation of Indian shooters, showing them that belief can get you anywhere. Even an Olympic final."