Why being ‘world No. 1’ doesn’t guarantee an Olympic medal in shooting and archery

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In the lead-up to the Olympics, much of India’s hopes were built around the aura of the ‘world number 1s’. Three shooters were ranked world No. 1 according to the Tokyo Olympics qualification rankings, while Deepika Kumari was ranked the No. 1 woman archer in the world. Yet while most Indians have finished poorly, gold medals have been won by competitors ranked well below the Indians. William Shaner of the USA, who won gold in the 10m rifle competition, was ranked 24th in the world, while China’s Sheng Lihao, who won silver in the same event, didn’t even have a world ranking. South Korea’s Kim Je-deok, who came into the archery events with a world rank of 201, ended up winning two gold medals.

“You just can’t say how shooters will do based on the world rankings. The way that rankings are calculated doesn’t justify it,” Heena Sidhu, herself a former world No. 1 pistol shooter, said on ESPN’s Talking Tokyo show on Tuesday. So why is there such a disconnect between rankings and performance? Here are the answers.

How many Indian shooters and archers were ranked world No. 1?

Prior to the start of the Olympics, eight Indian shooters competing in Tokyo were ranked inside the top 3 according to the Tokyo Olympics qualification rankings. Elavenil Valarivan (women’s 10m rifle) was the world No. 1, as were Yashaswini Deswal (women’s 10m pistol) and Abhishek Verma (men’s 10m pistol). Saurabh Chaudhary (men’s 10m pistol) was world No. 2, as were Divyansh Panwar (men’s 10m rifle), Manu Bhaker (women’s 10m pistol), Rahi Sarnobat (women’s 25m pistol) and Aishwary Pratap Tomar (men’s 50m 3 position). Among the archers, Deepika Kumari was ranked world No. 1 heading into Tokyo. How have they performed?

Sarnobat and Tomar are yet to compete in their shooting events; Kumari has competed in the archery mixed team event but is yet to complete her individual archery competition. Bhaker has competed in the women’s 10m air pistol and 10 m air pistol team event but is yet to compete in the women’s 25m pistol event.

Choudhary apart, none managed to even qualify for the eight-person final in their respective individual events. Valarivan finished 16th, Panwar finished 32nd, Verma finished 17th, while Bhaker and Deswal ended 12th and 13th in the women’s 10m pistol competition. Deepika Kumari, meanwhile, has finished in 9th position after the qualification round of the women’s individual archery competition.

Why were the performances so far from what the rankings would suggest?

The fundamental issue is with the understanding of world ranking system as a barometer of sporting performance in sports like archery and shooting. A global rankings system needs some basic principles fulfilled to accurately reflect the level of ability of players: Players need to compete against each other frequently, over a sustained period of time. This isn’t usually reflected in shooting and archery. The number of tournaments considered for ranking purposes are limited, as is the overall number of competitors. The best competitors don’t always compete in the same tournaments either. With a reduced set of data points with which to work with, ranking as measure of performance is easily swayed by a few outlier performances.

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How would the shooting and archery rankings compare with those of other sports?

World rankings in tennis, for example, are a far better arbiter of performance. The ATP rankings draw from a playing pool of over 1800 players on the ATP circuit, competing in 64 ATP tournaments each year. In addition players can also earn a smaller number of points by playing in the Challenger Tour and in the final rounds of ITF events. In order to calculate rankings, the 18 best performances of an athlete over the course of the previous year are taken into account.

In golf, the World rankings are calculated by dividing all the points a player has earned over a two-year period by the number of sanctioned tournaments he has taken part in. Players must play a minimum of 40 tournaments over the two-year period, failing which they are penalised. It also prevents players from protecting their ranking points. The points awarded in a tournament are distributed based on the tour (The PGA tour is rated highly, in contrast to the PGTI) and the strength of the field (calculated based on the world ranking and the money-list ranking of individual players in the field). Points earned retain their full value for 13 weeks, then depreciate over the next 91 weeks in equal installments until they come off entirely.

In shooting, there are less than 200 international athletes who compete in each event at a senior level. An athlete has just six tournaments in a non-Olympic/World championship year in which to earn ranking points – the four world cups, the World Cup final (should they qualify) and the continental championships. All rankings revert to zero at the end of the year.

The qualification rankings for Tokyo were calculated by adding points scored in relevant events in 2021 to the ranking points held by shooters at the time of the original postponement of the Olympics in March 2020. There were just two tournaments in 2021 where shooters could earn ranking points to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics – the New Delhi World Cup and the European Championships in Osijek. Covid-related travel restrictions meant relatively few international shooters competed in New Delhi and none of them were from China or Russia – who have won 12 medals so far between them at the Tokyo Olympics.

Thus a podium finish in a depleted field tended to catapult a player’s rankings. Lucas Kozeniesky of the USA went from 94 to 3 in the Olympic qualification rankings after winning the New Delhi World Cup. After his event at the Tokyo Olympics, where he won silver, China’s Sheng Lihao went from not having an international ranking to being placed 6th.

Conversely, at the most recent world rankings issued following the conclusion of the World Cup in Osijek, a number of shooters including Divyansh Panwar and Elavenil Valarivan saw their ranks drop steeply.

What about archery?

It’s a similar scenario: ranking points are primarily awarded for four types of tournaments – the Olympics, the four stages of the World Cup and the continental Championships. Points are also awarded in smaller events like the Asia Cup, but the number of points depends on the quality of the field. Although the rankings are weighted in favour of recency and the quality of the field (more weightage is given if more than a certain number of participants are ranked in the top 50) the problem of the best athletes from Korea, China and Japan not taking part – especially in the wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic – is the same as that in shooting.

What do rankings say about a country’s bench strength?

While a high ranking in shooting and archery might not be the definitive word on the quality of the rank holder, conversely it might have something to say on a country’s bench strength. Sending the same set of players to competitions while other countries do not, might artificially inflate ranks. “Teams like South Korea rarely send their all their best players to tournaments including the World Cups,” says Dharmendra Pradhan, former coach of the Indian archery team. “They usually send a couple of senior players and a couple of junior players in order to give them exposure. Because of that, even though a player might be very good, since they aren’t taking part in as many competitions, he can’t get as many ranking points. On the other hand, in India we have three or four good women’s shooters and then there aren’t any. So Deepika is sent for every ranking tournament. That gives her a chance to improve her ranking.” What is the purpose of ranking then?

World ranking in sports like shooting serve very little purpose apart from helping in Olympic qualification. While the vast majority of Olympic quotas are awarded for results in the world cups, continental and world championships, a single quota is awarded to the highest ranked shooter at the end of the qualification period. Unlike the quotas won in those tournaments which belong to the country and can subsequently be awarded to any shooter, the ranking quota belongs to the shooter alone. Based on this principle a shooter need not even take part in a single tournament with ranking points and still take part in the Olympics. A case in point is 16-year-old Sheng Lihao of China, who hadn’t even competed in a single senior international tournament but was still chosen to represent his country at the Olympics — where he won a silver medal.

What would be a better indicator of performance than ranking?

In the absence of regular tournaments conducted over the year, coaches feel performance in a strong domestic structure is a better indicator of ability. Pradhan points to 17-year-old Kim Je-deok, who won two gold medals in Tokyo and had the highest score in qualification – he came into the competition with an official world rank of 201. “That doesn’t mean he’s actually the 201st ranked archer in the world. That’s because he’s only taken part in one international competition — an Asia Cup before the Olympics.”

In Korea, he says, no one takes the rankings very seriously; team selection is based on performance in domestic trials. These happen over the course of a year, where nearly every shooter competes with others. In India, trials usually get over in a couple of days, on the basis of which archers are sent for competitions. “It’s one thing to have a good performance over one or two days but it’s a very different thing to perform at a high level over a year. But that’s what the Koreans do. It’s not a bad thing to have a high world ranking but you should know that” says Pradhan.



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