Exclusive | Manavjit Singh Sandu in conversation with WION Photograph:( AFP )
One of India's most successful shooters and the recipient of India's highest sporting award, the Khel Ratna in 2007, Manavjit Singh Sandhu, in an exclusive interview with WION's Sports Editor Digvijay Singh Deo, opened up on life in lockdown, lack of competition in 2020 due to COVID-19 pandemic, next-gen shooters, his medal-laden career and much more.
One of India's most successfull shooters, one of the first to be a senior world champion and the receipient of India's highest sporting award, the Khel Ratna in 2007, Manavjit Singh Sandhu, in an exclusive interview with WION's Sports Editor Digvijay Singh Deo, opened up on life in lockdown, lack of competition in 2020 due to COVID-19 pandemic, how shooters can adapt to the unprecedented cancellation and postponement of events, next-gen shooters, his medal-laden career and much more.
Digvijay Singh Deo: Manavjit Sandhu, good to connect with you. Now I must confess that all through these last 2 decades of knowing you I have never had to conduct an interview through broadband.
Manavjit Singh Sandhu: Yes, there are always new things to experience and it is great to connect with you through this new medium.
DSD: How have you been Manav, how easy or difficult has life been, you stay on the outskirts of Delhi and it is rather off the beaten track if one could say that.
Manavjit Singh Sandhu: well, I can say that I have done my civic duty and not violated any lockdown rules. My family and I have been inside our house since the lockdown began. Fortunately, because I live on the outskirts of Delhi, I have a bit of space around my house and I have made full use of it. But it has definitely been a unique experience.
DSD: So you are the second Indian sportsperson to feature on this show after Pullela Gopichand for whom the timing of the interview had to be adjusted to ensure they do not clash with the children's online classes.
Manavjit Singh Sandhu: Well I must say it's extremely strange. I would have never imagined online school classes taking place. Sometimes we as parents are also asked to attend the classes, so its an interesting new development. Although it is definitely very valuable and it should carry on till the lockdown ends.
DSD: How have the all adjusted to this .thankfully you do have your parents staying next door and there is some company.
Manavjit Singh Sandhu: Actually this period has not been as difficult as I initially thought it would be. I have made constructive use of my time in a way that adds value to me as an individual and also spent quality time with my family. It has been a fruitful and pleasant experience so far.
DSD: For the majority of your career Manav you trained in Italy, I was speaking to Daniele Di Spigno the other day about the ordeal he and his fellow Italians had to go through. Have you been in touch with most of your friends there?
Manavjit Singh Sandhu: I did connect with most of my friends back in Italy. The news coming from there till a few weeks back was extremely worrying, all of my Italian friends were obviously worried about their health and safety since the country was one of the worst affected in the world. But I'm delighted that the situation has improved and fortunately all of my shooter friends are in good health.
DSD: Italy started to open up this week, some other parts of Europe too are opening up and importantly sporting activities are gradually being allowed. None of that happening in India and is that a concern?
Manavjit Singh Sandhu: Yes, it definitely is a matter of concern. There is only so much an athlete can benefit from a break. Eventually, any sportsperson needs to get back to practice to be able to compete at an international level.
DSD: Considering how the situation is globally, Manav do you honestly see international travel and any sort of sporting calendar resuming soon?
Manavjit Singh Sandhu: I have resigned to the fact that we won't get to see any international competitions this year. I think it is also unlikely that we will be able to organise high-level and competitive domestic tournaments in the next couple of months. That is a major cause for concern and I'm sure that sportspersons and national sporting administrations across the world are working on solutions to ensure that their athletes get a competitive advantage over other countries when the shutdown ends.
DSD: Already the word is adapt and reinvent. Like Rafael Nadal said he is already considering 2020 to be a write-off. Let's take your sport shooting. What does the NRAI need to do to keep its shooters sharp and in top shape? There is no way they can keep practising at home and keep the peak levels up.
Manavjit Singh Sandhu: Yes, adaptability is the key. There is no doubt that this crisis will have a negative effect on all athletes in the world. The challenge is for every athlete to mitigate the negative effect of the shutdown. The sportspersons and the administrators have to take collective responsibility to deal with the problem. The countries which have a good organisational sporting structure will hold a competitive edge in 2021 when international action resumes. As far as India is concerned, we are faced with a unique set of challenges because of our high population density. If the government waits for things to return to normal, before allowing the sportsperson to return to training, then our athletes will certainly lose out on precious time.
DSD: You competed at 4 Olympics, Manav, how gutted were you not to make the cut for Tokyo.
Manavjit Singh Sandhu: Over the course of my career, I have learnt that disappointment is part of an athlete's journey. Failure is what makes victory so special. I have accepted the fact that there are bound to be disappointments in my career and have learnt to deal with them. To be frank, I have dealt with the setback much better than I expected I would. The fact that I didn't qualify would have been easier to digest had I competed in tournaments and then missed out due to my performances, but the fact that I was out of action due to injury does make it a little tough for me to take in. But that is all in the past, I look forward to carrying on with great motivation and being successful at the highest level again.
DSD: How do you reassess career goals after a major disappointment like that, shotgun shooting isn't about age. Did you think of walking away from it all?
Manavjit Singh Sandhu: Walking away from a sport should never be a knee-jerk reaction to a loss. It would be unfair to me as well as my career. I would never make a retirement decision as a result of a setback. I will only consider retiring when I feel I can longer compete at a level which is good enough for me to win medals for my country. There is no point carrying on just for the sake of participation. So I am pragmatic enough to realise that. However, at the moment I feel I can compete at the highest level and have retained my place in the Indian team. I am also as motivated as I ever, so I see no reason to throw in the towel yet.
DSD: Has this new break given you a new perspective on your career?
Manavjit Singh Sandhu: My personal opinion is that the experienced athletes will be in a better position to deal with this enforced break. This is because an experienced sportsperson is able to keep himself or herself motivated through testing times. A sportsperson's life can get mundane because of the rigorous practice schedule. A break like this can work in my advantage because I think when I return I will have a renewed sense of hunger. On the other hand, young athletes who are just starting their careers will see this break as an obstacle in their career path and they will most likely get frustrated during this period. Since this year had so many major events scheduled, athletes will be disappointed to miss out on opportunities to win medals. At the moment, we have no goal to work towards because of the uncertainty around the sporting calendar, but once there is more clarity on the schedule, athletes will be able to motivate themselves again.
DSD: Most of these young guns bagged the Olympic qualifying spots. Just 4 shooters have been to an Olympics before. Now we have this postponement. We don’t have competitions, how do you guide them through this phase?
Manavjit Singh Sandhu: Yes, I'm actually extremely concerned with how the young shooters will react to this break. But they are extremely talented and I'm sure they must be working on a plan to deal with the lockdown. I think a great responsibility lies with the federation to help the youngsters through this crisis and provide them with the necessary assistance and guidance. As far as us senior athletes are concerned, we can lead by example. Every season I take a break from the game when I don't even train for about a month. I feel that break helps me re-calibrate. Maybe some of the younger shooters can try that and see if it works for them. Although overall, every shooter will have different ways to deal with this period in the best manner and for that they need the complete support of the federation.
DSD: When you won the gold at the World Championship in 2006, it was a seminal moment with Abhinav Bindra also winning. Came just after Rajyavardhan Rathore's Olympic silver at Athens. Today you have a complete new bunch of kids dominating in rifle pistol. How do you see this evolution?
Manavjit Singh Sandhu: Yes it is great to see so many young guns winning medals for the country. There has been a paradigm shift in the confidence level of this young generation of shooters when compared with my generation. I remember when I was a youngster, my contemporaries and I were sometimes intimidated by our seniors and it took us some time to get over that hurdle before we could start competing with them. However, today's youngsters are not overawed by their senior competition, there is a certain amount of respect, but they don't let that affect their performance or their belief to win a medal. So this has been a very positive change in Indian shooting, they have won medals that some thought was impossible to win at such a young age. It is a huge boost for Indian shooting.
DSD: In hindsight Manav, seeing this fearless new generation, do you think you were too intense, too focussed and took it too seriously. I was at the Asian Games with you in Palembang and all these young kids were all on their PlayStations the night before the event...
Manavjit Singh Sandhu: I will definitely say that my approach to the game was different when compared to the younger generation. However it remains to be seen which approach will reap more benefits in the long run, but once again I must emphasise that every shooter has a different approach to the sport. When I had started out my career, there were some shooters who liked to 'switch off' before a major competition, while I preferred to stay in the zone. I would say that the younger generation has a more relaxed approach to the game and that's good for the progress of the sport.
DSD: There is a larger story here Manav and it revolves around Indian trap. Great legacy in the sport from the days of the late Karni Singh and Randhir Singh.we had a trap shooter in every Olympics since 1996. Why have we not been able to produce another Manav or a shooter of your calibre who has gone on to win around the world?
Manavjit Singh Sandhu: I have actually thought about this a lot over the last few years. It is my opinion that trapshooting is a sport that completely depends on individual talent rather than the sporting structure present in the country. I think there was a long time when there was a dearth of talent in trapshooting because we were dependent on the system to produce a world-beater. Now I think we have come to a conclusion that not only do we need a system in place, but we also need a strong talent who can be polished and nurtured by the system. In a highly complex sport like trap shooting, a great system must meet a great talent for long term success.
DSD: I mentioned above you went to 4 Olympics and each of those campaigns ended in disappointment. Why is it so tough to win an Olympic medal?
Manavjit Singh Sandhu: The Olympic medal is equally difficult to win for all athletes, such is the nature of the event. It is because it comes once in four years, that the event is so special. I have always maintained that if you repeat the Olympic competition ten times, you will get ten different winners. It is a bit of a roulette. The Olympics is not the only level an athlete should strive to be successful at, one must aim to achieve excellence at every level and at different events. It is not just the one medal that we should strive for, we should hope to win medals for India at all events that we compete in.
DSD: The other worry is even though the Olympics are now next year, there remain conflicting signals as to whether they will be held at all if no vaccine is found.it is extremely difficult for those already with qualifying tickets to keep their intensity levels up. This has never happened before so how do you prepare for an event that has so much uncertainty...
Manavjit Singh Sandhu: It is undoubtedly going to be a huge challenge for the athletes to prepare for the Olympics. I would advise them not to keep stressing over the dates of the Olympics, but work on small-term goals. It is impossible to prepare for the Olympics at full throttle for the next 15 months.
DSD: how does world shooting adapt, what will the new normal Manav, can online competitions work especially in rifle and pistol events?
Manavjit Singh Sandhu: Quite simply the shooting world has to adapt, just like every other sport. It might be a little tough for our sport to shift events online for the time being, but I feel it is a necessary step in the current crisis. Some events are easier to organise online, but trap shooting will be difficult to hold online because of the vast amount of infrastructure needed for the event. It is something ISSF should definitely consider keeping the sport alive during this period. Whether it be international or domestic competitions, the shooters will have something to look forward to and it will also give them an opportunity to maintain their level of focus and fitness.
DSD: What will be the learnings for humanity Manav when all this ends.imagine all of us forced indoors and into seclusion by an organism that we can’t even see.
Manavjit Singh Sandhu: As sportspersons, we let our work take precedence over everything else around us. Periods like these help us reset our priorities and we realise that there are things which are more important than the next tournament. So this period has provided me with a new perspective. I have also learned how to utilise my time better, as sportspersons, we don't get an extended period of time that we spend away from our work, because we are constantly travelling or preparing for events. So it is important to extract value from this time and I believe I have been able to do that during this lockdown. Time management is also a very important life skill. There are many other skills that we have acquired during this period, but the challenge is to be able to utilise them once the lockdown ends.