With Lulu and Kylie bringing down the curtain on the Commonwealth Games, I was afforded time to reflect on an event that had variously been described as “the best Games ever” (Prince Imran, president of the Commonwealth Games Federation) and “a bit shit” (Usain Bolt, allegedly).
In reality the Games fell somewhere in between, and captured the public’s imagination well enough during the 10-day sporting programme. A few sports took their opportunity in the spotlight with aplomb. Squash, for example, saw one million people tune in to watch its singles finals – no doubt aided by the men’s final being an all-English affair. The action inside the glass box was fast, furious and skilful, and it allowed the BBC to craft an easy narrative as fierce rivals Nick Matthew and James Willstrop battled it out for the gold medal, the former having undergone knee surgery just five weeks before.
The doubles events were the first time that a wider audience saw changes to the rules, which were implemented by the World Squash Federation following the Delhi Commonwealth Games in 2010. The tin height – that is the line on the wall above which the squash ball must be hit – was lowered, encouraging more stroke play and shorter rallies. This move, said WST chief executive Andrew Shelley, was to benefit “spectators and broadcast viewers alike”.
It’s not dissimilar to changes made to the shooting events for the sake of the potential viewer. There were encouraging signs in this regard too, as tickets for the shooting events – held two hours from the main hub events at Barry Buddon, don’t forget – sold out well in advance of the Games, beating many other sports in popularity.
I talk about viewing figures and the ‘TV audience’ quite a lot in these columns, and that’s because it seems a solid measure of the public’s interest in shooting. But interest ultimately isn’t enough – there needs to be a push to get people from ‘interested party’ to ‘active participant’.
Let’s say that I’ve watched the Commonwealth Games on the BBC and I’ve fallen in love with squash and airgun shooting. Having watched the BBC’s coverage I’ve become aware of their sports campaign ‘Get Inspired’, and, lo and behold, I’m feeling pretty damn inspired having seen Mick Gault become England’s most decorated sportsman of all time and the English men clean sweep the podium in the squash.
A quick Google search of ‘get inspired squash’ and ‘get inspired shooting’ and things are looking good – except there’s no actual mention of airgun shooting on the BBC’s page for shooting. Under the ‘Get Involved’ tab, there’s links for the NRA, the NSRA and the CPSA – detailing how you can take up those aspects of the shooting sports – but I can’t see a single mention of how to try air rifle or air pistol shooting. It even says that ‘gun ownership is strictly licensed in the United Kingdom’ – not yet, Alex Salmond.
The only mention of an airgun event on the entire page is in relation to the doping case of North Korea’s Kim Jong-su, who lost his medal in 10m air pistol after the Beijing Olympics.
Meanwhile, on the squash page, there’s a lovely link to a snazzy looking website called The Big Hit. I pop in my postcode and it shows me all the squash courts close to me with links to book a court.
Yes, squash is a sport with lower barriers to entry than airgunning – equipment costs are lower and squash courts are more numerous than airgun clubs – yet this feels like an artificially constructed barrier, and one that is specifically blocking those who are actively seeking a way to get involved with the sport.
It’s not the only unnecessary barrier facing airgunning. I noted with interest that of the 12 airgun medals available at the Games, India won five, of which two were gold. In comparison England managed two bronze medals thanks to Daniel Rivers and Mick Gault, while Australia (gold), Singapore (gold), Bangladesh (silver – and their only medal of the games), Malaysia (bronze), and Canada (bronze) all picked up a medal each.
One of India’s airgun gold medals was won by Abhinav Bindra, who now has four gold, two silver, and one bronze medal from the Commonwealth Games. However, his crowning achievement came in 2008 when he won India’s first-ever individual Olympic gold medal in the 10m air rifle event.
Following this he was recommended for the Bharat Ratna, the highest decoration that can be bestowed upon a civilian and which, at that point, had never been given to a sportsman – Sachin Tendulkar has since received the accolade. He is an icon in India. He has an autobiography and was selected to be the country’s flag bearer at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. He is more than a link on a website – he is walking inspiration to millions of people.
Meanwhile, Mick Gault doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, let alone a published autobiography, and though the mainstream press certainly took an interest in him after his air pistol medal, nearly every article about him includes a reference to how he doesn’t look like a decorated athlete. And though he’s racked up an OBE, muted calls for him to receive Sports Personality of the Year look about as likely as Kevin Pietersen winning the clubman of the year award at the ECB’s Christmas bash.
Mick Gault deserves to be championed for his staggering record in pistol shooting – much like George Digweed does for his shotgun achievements – but he isn’t. He’ll get about as far as becoming the answer to pub quiz questions for years to come, but he won’t be put forward by the government or BBC as an inspiration to the next generation of shooters.
Medals, viewing figures and ticket sales are indicators of potential interest, but the airgun industry in the UK is lacking that vital je ne sais quoi that converts interest to activity – both on the range and in shop owners’ tills.
Photography by Lee Bowditch