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Aden - Yasmine El Tohamy - The recent award he received from the President of India is only another feather in Olympic shooter Gagan Narang's cap, as he works to develop the country's standing in the sport
Gagan Narang is not a household name in India. On the contrary, this unassuming man could wade through crowded streets without being recognised in a country obsessed with the glitzy world of Bollywood actors and cricket superstars. But, ironically, the country of a billion-plus people has people like Narang to thank for saving its blushes at the world's most prestigious sporting event - the Olympics.
Narang is among only 14 Indians who have had the honour of winning individual medals since the modern Olympics started in Athens in 1896. He could have easily focused on his own goal in 2012, which was to win an Olympic medal for his country on his third attempt. But the Chennai-born athlete, already an eight-time Commonwealth Games (CWG) gold medal-winning shooter, decided to invest all his prize money from the CWG on a shooting academy that could provide equipment at subsidised prices for the country's aspiring shooters instead.
Now, Narang's Gun For Glory Shooting Academy has 16 centres across India and has since produced several international medal-winning shooters, including Elavenil Valarivan, the two-time ISSF World Cup winner in 10m air rifle.
The Olympian, who was recently conferred with the Rashtriya Khel Protsahan Puruskar award at the Presidential Palace in New Delhi, told WKND how many were "sceptical" because he started the academy in 2011, the year before the London Olympics was to be held. "A lot of people tried to talk me out of it. That was going to be my third Olympics, so many people thought the academy would be a distraction and I would lose out on a chance to win a medal for the country."
But Narang did go on to win a bronze in the 10m air rifle event at the London Games. "I proved that there was somebody who could win an Olympic medal for the country while doing something for its aspiring shooters. From that perspective, the medal was a great boost."
Back then, many had suggested he open an academy only after his retirement. Narang's response was: "Why can't an active athlete work towards the development of the sport? Why should we only think about doing it after retirement? Besides, if I quit my sport, my knowledge would soon be outdated because things change so quickly in sports. Being an active shooter, the advantage that the kids in my academy have now is that I know what the latest technology is."
Narang - who began shooting in 1997 - then revealed what motivated him to take such a bold step in 2011. "My parents sold a plot of land to buy a gun for me and we had to stay in rented accommodation for a while. We didn't have a house of our own," he said.
Determined that the parents of kids who came to his academy should not be in a similar position of having to sell their homes in order to see their children become top shooters, Narang spoke to manufacturers to procure guns at lesser rates, thus reducing the entry level barriers.
"Earlier, kids used to spend around INR300,000 to buy a gun. Now, it's much easier for them to join the sport. The clichéd notion of shooting being 'very expensive' was taken out. We have proven that guns can be used for bringing glory," he said.
But sustaining a shooting academy in India is still a big challenge. With the help of a Pune-based NGO called Lakshya, he was able to run the programme for over a year, winning 70-80 international medals. Albeit they have other supporters today, he noted they still require more funds to further improve facilities and "take the quality of training to the next level".
As for his personal dreams, the 36-year-old has his eye on qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. "I am hoping, but right now Tokyo is a distant dream," he said. "I took a break after last year's world championships. At eight months, it was the longest break I'd taken in the 22 years since I started shooting. The break was necessary, because I wasn't enjoying the sport."
Currently, Narang says he is enjoying the whole process without thinking too much about qualifying for the Olympics. It is, of course, at the back of his mind - but in a beautiful way, it is his academy students that are providing the motivation for him to better himself.
"The best shooter in the academy puts her scorecard in front of me, so I can try to better her record the next day. When I do, it motivates her to improve her performance even more. My academy kids are challenging me as a shooter and it's helping them improve too. It's a beautiful time now, and I am just enjoying it."
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