CWG officials to meet IOA in next few months over Birmingham boycott threat

Indian shooter Anish Bhanwala in action during the 2018 Commonwealth Games PATRICK HAMILTON/AFP/Getty Images

With the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) pushing for the country to boycott the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham over shooting being dropped from the programme, the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) remains "hopeful of a resolution" by the end of this year. CGF president Louise Martin and CEO David Grevemberg have fast-tracked their India visit to after the September 3-6 General Assembly in the Rwandan capital of Kigali.

"We are concerned and disappointed by India's stance," Grevemberg told ESPN. "But we don't want to be sending e-mails back and forth to them on the matter. Engaging face-to-face to discuss concerns, address misconceptions and arrive at a resolution is what we're looking at. We are aware that the IOA has written to its Sports Ministry seeking support and we don't want to be overly speculative about where things are headed. The CGF has been planning an India visit but now seems like the right time."

To mark its protest, the IOA also withdrew from the September General Assembly. Terming it India's 'right' to participate or stay away, Grevemberg sees this as an opportunity lost for the country to raise their concerns. For all the heartburn over shooting's exclusion now, the fact remains that the prospect of the sport being dropped from the CWG was known since as far back as 2007.

At CGF's General assembly in Colombo in 2007, the pool of core sports - which earlier included only athletics and swimming, was expanded to make room for ten. In addition, the provision for the host country to choose seven sports from a separate list was also made. At its 2015 General Assembly in Auckland, CGF decided to further increase the number of core sports from 10 to 16. Shooting wasn't part of the core sports list in either 2007 nor when they were reaffirmed and numbers added just four years ago.

"We have to understand that shooting has never been a core sport and all these decisions of which sports go into the core sports list and which will feature as optional sports were taken through a democratic process at our General Assembly. As hosts, Birmingham is simply exercising its options of choosing optional sports of its preference and feasibility under the constitution," Grevemberg said.

India stands second in the all-time medal shooting tally at the Commonwealth Games with 134 medals, just behind Australia.

Shooters, both former and present, have been quick to fire. The most decorated Indian shooter at the Commonwealth Games with 15 medals, Jaspal Rana, has unequivocally thrown his weight behind IOA's call. "Boycott. Simple. We have to put our foot down. It's the only way we can raise a stink," he says. Pistol shooter Heena Sidhu too concurred on taking a stand on the issue as a preventive move before a similar fate befalls other sports India harvests its medals from.

The strongest voice in the Indian shooting fraternity - Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra, though, was of a contrarian view. In a tweet last week, he called out the meaninglessness of boycotts.

In September 2018, five sports - shooting, archery, beach volleyball, para table tennis and cricket - that were not included in the original bid, expressed their desire to be part of the Games. Key criteria were set, written submissions invited, and face-to-face presentations were made to the assessment panel from each of the five sports. The criteria included financial considerations, availability of suitable venues and potential for additional revenue streams from ticket sales and/or sponsorship. The panel concluded that the proposed location for shooting at Bisley in Surrey offered "little or no benefit" to the West Midlands, in a Games with a significant proportion of funding coming from the region.

An alternative proposal with a trimmed number of events (two) - which would include only small bore rifle and pistol events which can be staged in a single Birmingham venue - was sought. The parent shooting body, ISSF, International Confederation of Full bore Rifle Associations (ICFRA) and British Shooting (BS), however stuck to their demand of a Bisley-based venue hosting all four disciplines - full bore, pistol, rifle and shotgun.

"Facilities or the lack of them is just an excuse. At the 1994 Games in Canada there was a makeshift venue that was set up. It's clear that the hosts have a bias against the sport." Jaspal Rana

The other half of the argument lies in Birmingham's rationale that the sport was dropped, for the first time since 1970, because of the "lack of appropriate facilities". The Bisley venue (130 miles from Birmingham venue) which was used for shooting events during the 2002 Manchester Games was dismissed for its distance. However, cycling events will be hosted at a venue (Lee Valley VeloPark in Stratford, East London) which is even farther - 135 miles away from the Birmingham venue. According to British Shooting, ISSF even offered to pitch in financial support towards readying the Bisley venue for the Games, which was rejected by the organizing committee.

Of its total count of 67 medals at the 2016 Rio Games, Great Britain won just two bronze in shooting. Rana alleges that the organizers' bias against the sport is also at play.

"Facilities or the lack of them is just an excuse," Rana adds. "At the 1994 Games in Victoria, Canada there was a makeshift venue that was set up. It's clear that the hosts have a bias against the sport. UK has among the toughest gun laws in the world and in a global scenario where terrorism is on the rise, there's perhaps also pressure from the anti-gun lobby to clamp down on sports like ours. But let's not confuse terrorists with sportspersons winning medals for their country."

There's also International Olympic Committee's grander plan of ridding shooting of bullets and replacing them with movie-style red laser beams at the Olympics. The proposal, if it eventually comes through, will strip shooting of the factor of unpredictability that crosswinds or powder consistency bring. It would, so to speak, take the fire out of firearms.

The Commonwealth Games snub, Rana fears, is already a start.