Munich, August 2002. Anjali Bhagwat had just won the ISSF Champions Trophy, a standalone competition in the 10m air rifle event featuring the year's best women shooters. Just as she was leaving the firing range, she was informed of another competition about to start -- the Champion of Champions, featuring the five best women squaring off against the five best men's shooters. "It wasn't official or anything but quite competitive. Eventually, one by one, all the guys were eliminated. Then it was just the women and finally it was just me," she recalls. She won $1000 as prize money and even today, despite her many achievements -- reaching an Olympic final, winning a World Cup, being ranked World No.1 -- she places this one-off title right up there.
That incident also offered more proof of what has long been suspected, and is today borne out by statistics: in the sport of air rifle shooting, women are as good as, if not fractionally better than, men. For more context, think of it this way: Of all the events in all the disciplines in the Summer Olympics, the air rifle event is one of only two (dressage in equestrian being the other) where female athletes post consistently better numbers in events where they either compete against or follow the same parameters as men.
The numbers bear this out.
Over the four ISSF World Cups in 2019 -- the most recent complete season -- women twice shot the highest scores in qualifying. In the finals, women finished with a higher score on three of four occasions. At the 2019 World Cup final (the season-ender), a woman shooter had the highest score in qualifying as well as in the final, a pattern that was replicated at the Asian Championships and the 2019 Pan American Games.
Similarly, the winning scores by women at the 2019 and 2020 European Championships as well as the 2021 World Cup in New Delhi were higher than those in the men's category. Indeed both the current world records in the qualification rounds as well as finals for women (634 and 252.9 respectively) are higher than those for men (633.5 and 252.8).
The focus on recent scores is because of a change in qualifying rules for rifle shooting in 2018: Until then, women had 40 shots in qualifying compared to 60 for men; now they have the same number of shots.
But that was just a statistical anomaly, says Heinz Reinkemeier, who coached Abhinav Bindra to an Olympic gold medal in 2008. He says he didn't need the rule change to show him that women were very competitive in air rifle. "It's been true for more than the last two years," he tells ESPN. "Shooting wasn't always split by gender. In the 1976 Olympics, the American Margaret Murdock won a silver medal in the free shooting event... after that the men decided to split shooting up into men and women because they didn't like to be overtaken by the girls," he laughs.
Professor Daniel Mon Lopez of the University of Madrid, who has studied this, published his findings last year. In the study, "Recent changes in women's Olympic shooting and effects in performance", Lopez -- who also works as a coach for the Spanish Olympic trap team -- analysed the scores of all women competitors vis a vis the men at the 2016 and 2018 European Championships. The median score for women shooters for each shot was 10.382 at the 2018 tournament, compared to 10.379 for the men. His conclusion: "No significant differences between men and women for air rifle performance either in 2016 or 2018."
But even this was unusual for Lopez. "Even the fact that there was no statistical difference between the men and women's rifle shooters was remarkable. When you look at nearly any other non-equestrian sport at the Olympics, there is a definite advantage for men," he says.
This is most apparent when gender-segregated sports hold mixed-team events (in Tokyo, mixed-team relays are being added to athletics and swimming). "Normally in sport, men have between 5-12 percent more performance than woman. This isn't happening in rifle shooting," he says.
The differences in gender even play out in other precision sports like non-rifle shooting or archery. In his study, Lopez had analysed not just air rifle scores but also air pistol scores at the European Championships and concluded that male shooters (median score 9.549) had a definite advantage compared to women competitors (median score 9.374) in that event.
THE REASONS WHY
One factor, Lopez suggests, is the stiff jacket and trousers that all rifle shooters wear, which provides stability and reduces the need for strength. While most sports require dynamic strength, rifle shooting needs isometric strength -- the ability to overcome resistance. The jacket, Lopez reckons, helps in this regard. "When you are shooting rifle in these clothes, you are using a very low level of strength relative to your maximum strength. Then your precision becomes more important," he says.
This jacket is also why other precision-based sports like pistol shooting and archery don't see a similar narrowing of the gap. "In pistol, men and women use pistols weighing about 1.1 kg but women in general have a lower grip strength compared to men, so they have to use a higher relative percentage of their maximum strength," says Lopez. "In rifle shooting, you are using only about 30 percent of their maximum strength."
But there's another, rather surprising, factor: body structure. Some of the same physical characteristics that give men an edge in most sports -- a taller build with heavier upper-body musculature that generates more strength while narrower hips provide more running efficiency-- works against them in the standing rifle event. This is because of the way standing rifle shooting -- unlike other precision sports -- uses the human anatomy itself as a scaffolding to aid balance.
"There's certainly a factor of anatomy," says Launi Meili, Olympic gold medallist in the women's 3 position event at the Barcelona Olympics who currently coaches the USA Air Force team. "Generally speaking women have a lower centre of gravity and wider hips. All of that helps in the standing position," she says. "A taller body is harder to stabilise because its centre of gravity is higher. The smallest external factors, from wind to even the shooter's own pulse, would have a greater effect on a taller shooter than a shorter one."
"Think of the stick figure of a man and a woman," she says. "For a man, the shape from the shoulder to the hips is a 'V' and in a woman that generally is inverted. Women's shoulders are thinner and usually hips are equal or wider. If you carry more weight in your shoulders, your centre of gravity is higher."
Meili describes the build of the perfect shooter. "Apart from someone with flat feet, you'd want someone under 5'5" or 5'6". You'd want their hips to be the same width as the shoulders or a little wider. All body types can be good shooters but that type of body [can be] a better standing position shooter. And I'd believe more women would fit into those dimensions."
It's not just height: the edge of the pelvic bone is also a great spot to rest the elbow of the arm supporting the rifle handguard. "In the standing position, we [women] place our elbow very close to our hipbone. So we use bone structure to hold up the gun. So we literally have a direct line from our hands to our elbow to our hips to the ground. It's not quite a straight line --- your feet are generally placed wider than your hip, but largely when you think about that line in women, its shorter and generally we have our hip right underneath our elbow," says Meili.
Finding the same posture is generally harder for men. "For a lot of guys, their elbow ends several inches above their hipbone. They end up using their ribcage to support their elbow."
Reinkemeier, though, isn't entirely sure whether there is a physical advantage. "There is no real difference between big and small or fat or thin or girl or boy or whatever. This is one sport in which people of all body types can perform well. All the physical advantages in sport like strength and size does not have any influence in shooting because it is a coordinative sport. You just have to pull the trigger," he says.
That's an argument Deepali Deshpande, coach of the national air rifle shooting team, partially leans towards as well. "I think there might be a factor of balance, but ultimately it is the mind and body which matter," she says. "The most important skill in rifle shooting is decision-making. When the margin of error is so small, you have to be precise in your choices."
It's here that Deshpande, a former Olympian herself, feels women have another advantage. "In my experience, women generally keep things simple. What I've seen with men is they are very technically minded. They'll constantly be fiddling with the screws or making some adjustments," she says. "That is the difference in performance. The simpler you keep it, the better your results will be. That is where women score more points. Rifle shooting is about how precisely you can repeat the same action."
Meili makes a similar observation. "I work with a cadet team that's mostly men. For them, everything about the shot has to make sense. A plus B has to be equal to C. There's nothing wrong with that but when I talk about intuition, they don't seem to have an idea. A couple of years ago, I was trying to get one of our top shooters to try and anticipate the shot before he took it. And he said he didn't understand what I was saying. He was a very mechanical shooter. In his mind, he's thinking -- If this happens, then we do this, and if this happens, then we do this. He had to see it in black and white. I think largely women might have a better trust of just taking a shot than men," says Meili.
That intuition is important, agrees Bhagwat. "No one can be perfectly balanced for an entire series. There are so many small movements because of your pulse or your breathing that can jeopardise your shot. Your trigger finger has to be ready. What matters is choosing the right moment to take your shot, you have to be ready to keep yourself in the present."
Another factor, Meili says, is that women enter the sport with fewer expectations. "When women start shooting they generally do it because it's fun. It is new to us, so we come in with an open mind. We listen. We are a lot more patient. Testosterone isn't always a great help in shooting. This is a sport where the margins are so minute that we need to be calm cool and collected," she says.
For shooters like Bhagwat, the realisation she was shooting at par or even better than the men, came at a high-profile event and took her by surprise. It might do for most men too, says Meili, perhaps because men enter shooting expecting they should be good at it. "When you think about history, men were the ones who went out to hunt and went to war and so they think shooting is almost part of their genetic baggage. Even if it isn't natural, there is this belief that they should at least get competent at it pretty easily," she says.
The current trend of mixed-team shooting has some unexpected positives in the Indian setup. "During the camp, we have controlled matches, sometimes the men shoot better and sometimes the women do. But it helps each of them grow," says Deshpande. The fact that they are at the very least equally matched encourages a positive team atmosphere. " I like the relationships and camaraderie that forms when both genders know they are performing at the same level. Once the boys learn the girls are as capable as them or more, they learn to respect their teammates. That reflects when they go out too. Their general outlook to women changes," says Deshpande.