SHOOTING: PAKISTAN’S SHOOTING STAR

Published September 19, 2021
Gulfam in action at the Tokyo Olympics Shooting Range. Inset: Gulfam Joseph
Gulfam in action at the Tokyo Olympics Shooting Range. Inset: Gulfam Joseph

During and after the Tokyo Olympics, two Pakistani competitors attracted the attention of compatriots more than the others — javelineer Arshad Nadeem and weight-lifter Talha Talib — both of whom came very close to winning the country’s first Olympic medal since 1992. However, there was another sports discipline where Pakistanis also put up a very good show — shooting.

Pakistan was represented by three marksmen, all of whom had qualified for the Olympics. In fact, of the 10 Pakistani sportspersons who appeared at these Olympics, only four had directly qualified — Arshad Nadeem was the only one apart from the three shooters. The other six, including Talha Talib, were there on invitation or as ‘wild card’ entries.

Two of the shooters came close to entering the medal round. The 34-year-old Ghulam Mustafa Bashir, who had also competed in the 2016 Olympics, was in contention for the medal round, with a sixth-place finish following the first qualifying round of the 25m rapid fire air pistol event at the Games. He eventually ended up in 10th place, with an aggregate score of 579, four places behind the cut-off for the medal round.

Twenty-one-year-old Gulfam Joseph came even closer to entering the medal round in the 10m air pistol event. He had to be in the top eight to qualify for the medal round but finished ninth among the 36 competitors.

The army soldier from Rahim Yar Khan regrets the narrowest of misses. “That day, I had hit a few perfect 10s,” he tells Eos. “Had I managed 10 on the last shot, I would have appeared in the medal round.”

And anything could have happened. Gulfam accumulated 578.13 points against 8th- placed Damir Mikec of Serbia who qualified with 578.21 points. Damir ultimately won the silver medal. This event also saw the only Olympic record broken in the shooting competition of Tokyo 2020, by gold medallist Javad Faroughi of Iran.

Of the three Pakistani shooters who qualified for and competed at the recent Tokyo Olympics, young Gulfam Joseph came closest to winning a medal. He now wants to put his disappointment behind him and focus on winning international laurels for his country

The youngster has taken the disappointment sportingly. “Obviously, I felt low missing from such a close margin,” says Gulfam. “I was aiming for a medal, as in practice I even scored 590. But due to my age I believe I have time and I will make sincere efforts to bring laurels for my country in the international arena.”

Gulfam’s impressive show at the Olympics means he is now ranked 11th in the world in the 10m air pistol and has been invited to participate in the lucrative 2021 International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF) President’s Cup, to be held later this year in Cyprus. The world’s top 12 in shotgun, rifle and pistol Olympic events, according to world rankings after the Tokyo Games, have been invited.

Gulfam will be the only shooter from Pakistan in the prestigious event, which carries cash prizes for the first six positions in the range of US $15,000 (for the winner) to $5,550 (for the sixth spot). The accommodation and travel expenses of athletes will be covered by the ISSF.

The actual journey for Gulfam started in August 2017, when the then 17-year-old was recruited in Pakistan Army’s engineers corps. “I was undergoing basic training at the Pak Army Engineers Centre in Risalpur,” he explains. “Pistol shooting was part of the curriculum, and I excelled in it. The army runs under-19 talent hunt schemes and the scouts spotted me. No sooner had I finished my training at the centre, than I was posted to the Army Marksmanship Unit at Jhelum.”

Gulfam in action at the Tokyo Olympics Shooting Range. Inset: Gulfam Joseph
Gulfam in action at the Tokyo Olympics Shooting Range. Inset: Gulfam Joseph

And then shooting became his life. “The Army Marksmanship Unit has an international standard range and provides the best weapons and ammunition along with proper coaching. Within a few months, I was the national champion.”

It was then only a matter of time before he arrived on the international arena. And he made it to the Olympics in his maiden international appearance — the 2019 Asian Shooting Championships in Doha doubled up as the Asian qualifying tournament for the Tokyo Olympics. There is an interesting tale associated with it.

“I wasn’t even 20 at the time and my name was suggested for the junior section of the Asian Shooting Championships. But the Secretary-General of the National Rifle Association of Pakistan (NRAP) Razi Ahmed Khan insisted that I had it in me to even qualify for the Olympics, and I was entered into the main competition.”

There were two qualifying slots for the Olympics in the 10-metre air pistol event and Gulfam qualified. And who was the other qualifier? Iran’s Javad Faroghi, the eventual gold medalist at Tokyo.

The significance of this achievement for Pakistan can be gauged from the fact that Gulfam was given the honour to be the flag bearer of the country’s contingent at the 2019 South Asian Games. “It was a surreal feeling to lead the national contingent, holding the flag in your hands at such a young age,” he says.

At those South Asian Games, Gulfam won silver behind an Indian. Next, in January 2020, in the more competitive environment of the 9th International Shooting Grand Prix in Kuwait, he achieved an excellent second position, with the future silver medalist of the Tokyo Olympics — the Serbian Damir Mikec — finishing a place below him.

The onset of Covid-19 forced the first online Asian Shooting Championship in January 2021. Gulfam participated from Karachi and was placed sixth. At the ISSF World Cup in Osijek, Croatia, just one month before the Olympics, all the Olympic qualifiers competed and Gulfam obtained a creditable 13th position.

He is thankful to both the Pakistan Army and NRAP. “For the last three years, I am posted at the Army Marksmanship Unit, where I train all the time with the best equipment available to me,” he says. “The NRAP arranges shooting events in Pakistan and also provides international exposure, sending us to competitions abroad.

“Recently, the Chief of Army Staff called me to the GHQ and I was presented with one million rupees for my Olympics performance,” he beams. This is the only substantial reward that Gulfam has received.

Most of us might assume that a shooter’s training comprises only shooting. But Gulfam reveals the rigorous routine he follows to prep. “A strong body is a definite requirement for shooting. Working out in the gymnasium is a part of my daily routine. The eyes play a major part in this sport and there are many exercises to develop focus, one of which happens to be candle meditation, where a candle is positioned in complete darkness and you have to concentrate on the candlelight for as long as possible.

“There is also colour meditation, in which three boxes of different colours are placed ahead and you have to keep your eyes fixed on one of them. Then there are eye movement exercises, too. Also, some six months before the Olympics, I did yoga exercises to improve breathing and focus. We also had sessions with a psychologist to make us mentally strong,” he says.

Gulfam wants to put aside the disappointment of Tokyo. The 2022 Asian Games are waiting for him, where he can achieve what no Pakistani has done till today.

In all the Asian Games, no Pakistani shooter has ever won a medal of any colour. Gulfam can be the first.

The writer can be reached at ijaz62@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 19th, 2021

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