Explained: What happened when Manu Bhaker’s gun malfunctioned at Olympics
India's Manu Bhaker reacts after the 10m Air Pistol Women's Qualification at the Summer Olympics 2020, in Tokyo, Sunday, July 25, 2021. Bhaker failed to qualify for the finals. (PTI Photo/Gurinder Osan)
Amidst the line-up of shooters working their craft quietly, there was frantic movement over at the lane Manu Bhaker was shooting in.
After taking 16 shots in the women’s 10m air pistol qualification event at the Asaka Shooting Range, Bhaker’s gun started to malfunction. It was not the start to her maiden Olympic campaign that the teenager had hoped for.
The cocking lever at the top of the gun’s barrel broke. Without it, there was no way she could load her weapon, let alone fire at the target. So while the rest of the field continued to take their time to shoot the required 60 shots over 75 minutes, Bhaker was forced to sacrifice 17 minutes out of that to repair her weapon.
What was the problem?
The cocking lever, when opened, allows the pellet to be placed in the barrel. When closed, the pellet is secured and a shot can be taken – the gun does not fire (with or without a pellet) if the lever is not closed. In Bhaker’s case, there was no scope to fire the weapon since the lever had broken.
But it wasn’t a problem that couldn’t be fixed.
“This (malfunction) was an extremely rare one,” says former Commonwealth Games gold medallist Ronak Pandit, who is in Tokyo with the team as the national pistol coach.
“The cocking lever is a metal part and not expected to break. However, as we had a spare pistol, we were able to replace the part.”
The only problem was, once the part was replaced, the circuit in the grip or butt also stopped working.
How did it affect Bhaker?
Despite there being a legitimate cause for delay, shooting rules do not allow an athlete extra time to complete a round. In total, a shooter has to go through 60 shots over 75 minutes in the qualification round. By the time Bhaker’s gun was fixed, she had to shoot 44 shots in 38 minutes.
The 17-minute break took an important chunk out of her planned routine. But fixing the gun she was comfortable with instead of using a replacement was a better option for her.
“That would have cost us more time,” Pandit says.
“The spare pistol is kept still and we need to calibrate our sights day-to-day. For this, we would need at least three or four practice shots for which we don’t get any extra time. So in this case, it was better to repair and continue with the same pistol.”
How did she cope?
Such an uncanny problem in the most important event of her life did indeed rattle the Jhajjar native. But Bhaker managed to bounce back.
The first four shots she took with the repaired pistol (to complete the second set) saw her hit three perfect 10s and a 9.
“Competing at the Olympics is anyways unnerving and when things go wrong for no fault of your own, of course you are rattled. But we prepared for contingencies and that’s why despite all this she still almost made it to the finals,” Pandit adds.
“Since it happened early in the match, she had to shoot a major part of the match under that stress so it was extremely difficult but Manu fought very hard and came very close.”
Her six series scores eventually read 98, 95, 94, 95, 98 and 95 for a total of 575 with 14 inner 10s. The score meant she finished 12th among 53 competitors, with only the top eight making the final.
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Did she still have a chance?
Till the last shot of the qualification round, Bhaker was still in with a chance to make it to the final. However, she only managed to shoot an 8. Had she scored a perfect 10, with another inner-10, she would have been level on 577 with Ukraine’s Olena Kostevych and Frenchwoman Celine Goberville, leading to a shoot-off between the three for two spots in the final.
Nerves may or may not have been the reason for shooting the 8 on her final shot, but the ticking clock would not have made things easy for Bhaker either. Yet, she managed to battle it for a majority of her contest.
How does a shooter prepare for a shot?
It’s folly to believe that shooting is simply about lifting a gun, aiming at the target and pulling the trigger. There’s a great deal of detail that goes into every shot.
“Everybody has a shot routine and rhythm,” explains 2012 London Olympics bronze medallist Gagan Narang.
“You go through a checklist of five or 10 or 15 things. From the time you think about loading the pistol, till the time you make the shot, till the few seconds after the shot. That’s called shot sequence.
“You have to work on your body stability, lift the pistol, aim, compose your nerves, then slowly start squeezing the trigger when you feel you are the most stable. That’s called shot coordination.”
Accordingly in training, shooters work up a time frame in which they make each shot keeping in mind the limit – 60 shots in 75 minutes. But when a malfunction occurs, like it did in Bhaker’s case, shot coordination gets affected.
“Maybe out of 10, four things will happen perfectly. But even without this, you can shoot a perfect 10. When you have time pressure, the routine gets disturbed,” Narang adds.