The Manu Bhaker-Jaspal Rana Fallout Saga: How it Unfolded
What led to the fallout between Manu Bhaker and her coach, just months before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?
Indian shooters’ disappointing show at the Tokyo Games has opened a plethora of questions about Team India’s preparations in the run-up to the Olympics. Also under intense scrutiny is the out-in-the-open rift between star shooter Manu Bhaker and junior pistol coach Jaspal Rana, both of whom split few months before the Olympics.
“There was just one person who was the negative factor in the whole thing (wrangling within the team). I am referring to Jaspal Rana. Before the tour to Croatia (where the team moved in May)… (there was) a lot of internal wrangling in the pistol squad among coaches. That was addressed to all by me in person prior to the team leaving for Croatia,” National Rifle Association of India president Raninder Singh had said in Tokyo, hours after the talented duo of Manu and Saurabh Chaudhary failed to notch up a medal in the 10 metre mixed team event.
Was it a case of breaking under the mighty Olympic pressure, or is there more to India’s poor show at the Tokyo Games? Were the young turks too inexperienced, or did the turn of events in the lead-up to the Olympic Games affect their preparations and mental make-up? Could the NRAI have handled the situation better, being well aware of the internal bickering and infighting?
The Quint tries to seek answers.
Manu and Jaspal first came together just ahead of the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast. It was Manu’s breakthrough period in the shooting world, and the then-16-year-old shone with a sparkling gold, setting a new Games’ record. And although Rana was just days into the job as her coach-mentor, it set the tone for a strong coach-athlete partnership.
This was also a time when teenage shooters Anish Bhanwala and Saurabh Chaudhary were making their marks as India put up strong performances at major events as the junior shooters revelled. Manu and Saurabh also combined for the newly-introduced mixed team event and the pair produced stellar performances at the World Cups. It is understood that the 31-year-old Abhishek Verma too began to train under Rana on Manu’s insistence.
First Signs of Strain
However, the first signs of something going amiss arose as early as 2018. The calm and composed Saurabh, known for his impeccable shooting talent and zen-like focus, allegedly wrote to the federation expressing his reservations about training with Rana.
Those in the know suggest that Saurabh was unhappy with junior coach Rana’s training methods and upon being given no choice by the federation, decided only to compete in the senior category. It is also of note that in the ensuing year, Jaspal was ignored for the prestigious Dronacharya award after none of his proteges, including Manu and Saurabh, mentioned him as their mentor in official records.
The Golden Period
What followed though was a golden period in the history of Indian shooting. In 2019, Manu and Saurabh won five consecutive gold medals in the mixed team events at the ISSF World Cups, establishing their supremacy. And while Saurabh chose to train with his childhood coach Amit Sheoran, Manu continued under Rana.
The two, however, had their share of differences. While Rana was vocal about not being in favour of Manu competing in three events at big tournaments — 10 metre air pistol, mixed team event and 25 metre pistol, and felt it was “too much for a young athlete to handle”, Manu felt otherwise. Rana’s words of praise for fast-rising pistol shooter Chinki Yadav too seem to have not go down well with Manu.
“More than anything, a shooter seeks confidence from a coach and it seems it did not happen in this case,” says a source close to the development. “Manu felt sidelined and at times, it was a lot of mental pressure on her as she felt her potential was being questioned.”
The Big Fallout
The final breaking point came in March 2021. At the New Delhi World Cup, which was also an Olympic qualifying event, Manu, it is learnt, questioned Rana about “ignoring” her. The young shooter was “displeased” with the coach for not spending enough time to hone her skills in the run-up to the Games, and sent a personal message to the coach.
What followed was an embarrassing and much-avoidable incident that shocked everyone present. On the day of the 10 metre final, as Chinki won the gold medal ahead of Manu (bronze), Rana, in a bizarre show of display, paraded the Karni Singh shooting ranges with Manu’s personal message imprinted on the back of his white T-shirt.
The rift was now out in the open.
“Manu was the one who asked for a change in the coach (in March). She was not okay with how this coach (Rana) was treating her. He had not been a good influence on her since the last few months. She was suffering,” said former World No. 1 pistol shooter Heena Sidhu reflecting on the incident.
“We all saw how he wrote that personal message on his shirt and paraded around during the World Cup in front of all the Sports Authority of India and NRAI officials. It is not a healthy thing from a man of his age, who has a daughter of Manu’s age. That was the first red flag that was visible,” the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games medallist said.
“It was an embarrassing moment for Indian shooting,” says a team insider. “Differences and rifts do happen but such blatant public display is surely something that the shooting world could have done without.”
The incident also reflects poorly on the NRAI, who did not take any disciplinary action against the coach. However, the federation did try to play truce between the two aggrieved parties. In a meeting held in Delhi, attended by Manu, her parents and Rana, both sides put forth their views but failed to reach a mid-point. The coach-pupil spilt was now official.
“It is for reasons best known to him (Rana) and the athletes concerned, they are unable to work together. This is not China where we live where I cannot dictate to people that ‘you will do this and that’. They have to be willing to work with each other,” said Raninder in Tokyo.
Coach Ronak Pandit Asked to Take Over
Raninder, perhaps seeing the sign of things to come, penned down a strong-worded eight-page letter to the coaches at this stage. He warned them of “internal squabble and factionalism” and also declared Ronak as Manu’s coach till the Tokyo Games.
“It was a tough situation for me but as a coach, it is my responsibility to step up for national duty,” said Ronak in a chat with The Quint from Tokyo. “I have not been familiar with Manu before this. I was not aware of her Olympic preparations, and more importantly, I only had one-and-a-half months in hand before our first match in Tokyo.”
“I was a bit apprehensive but as coaches, we do not pick and choose athletes. I was happy to work with her despite the short span of time and did the best to my ability to keep her focused and sharp for the Games,” he added.
Asked if he induced any changes in Manu’s game for the Olympics, Ronak reflected, “There was no time to make any technical or tactical changes as we were too close to the Games. If I had six months in hand with at least two competitions in between, I would have tried something different. We decided to work more on the mental aspect, trying to keep her in a confident and relaxed state of mind.
“I believe in the past, it had been fed into her that she has temperament issues and that she cannot perform very well at the big stage under pressure. As a coach, it was my responsibility to help her establish a belief in her ability and that is what we worked upon,” Ronak said, providing an insight into the preparations.
Ronak said it was “difficult to judge” her performance in the 10 metre and mixed team events on the back of the pistol malfunction mishap. However, he was “happy” to see how Manu handled things.
“As a coach, I am very, very proud of how she handled her extremely tragic situation in the individual event. The pistol malfunction is a huge trauma and can unsettle the best of athletes and she held her own extremely well,” he said.
The Blame Game
Although the guns are out and India’s troubled campaign and unimpressive performance has led to a huge outcry in the country, it will not be fair to blame Jaspal Rana alone for the debacle.
When The Quint contacted the Padma Shri awardee and former Asian Games and Commonwealth Games champion shooter, Rana choose to speak about the ongoing Games.
“The Olympics are not finished yet and our shooters are still competing our there. Let us back our athletes to give their 100 percent. I think that is the only thing that matters at this stage,” Rana said, before adding, “Two people cannot decided the outcome of an Olympics. They can blame me, that’s okay. I can only say, ‘Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan’.”
A tweet by Rana few days ago too reflected on his state of mind.“And once I clued in the fact that life is finite the thought of losing it didn’t scare me anymore. The end comes no matter what. The only thing matters is how do you want to go out? On your feet or on your knees? @RaninderSingh @ianuragthakur @Media_SAI @OfficialNRAI @DelhiDsra”
Raninder, however, insisted that it was not “Jaspal’s fault”.
“Our performance here is not Jaspal’s fault. I cannot hold him responsible at all. I can certainly say it might have had an impact on Manu to some extent,” was Raninder’s view.
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