Shooter Hoang Xuan Vinh not only defied his short-sightedness to bring home Vietnam’s first-ever Olympic gold medal, but also sub-standard training conditions at home, where he had to practice with paper targets and a shortage of ammunition.
The 42-year-old military colonel quenched his country’s thirst for a first gold medal in 64 years of Olympic competition by acing the men’s 10m air pistol event during Sunday’s opening of competition at Rio 2016.
But it is not the only thing that makes Vinh’s medal historic. What is more significant about his victory in Brazil is that he has had to “watch the bullets,” or practice using as few rounds of ammunition as possible, in preparation for the Games.
Bullets may be an indispensible part of the sport of shooting, but Vietnam has faced a shortage of ammunition for its national shooting squads in recent years, with shooters having no choice but to try to do without.
Nguyen Tan Nam, head coach of the Hanoi shooting team, told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper in May that some 100 athletes in his squad had not “heard the sound of gunshot for ages.”
“As there is no ammunition, every day when they come here for training, the shooters just raise the gun, pull the trigger to hear the ‘tick’ sound, and that’s all,” he elaborated.
Sometimes the team is lucky enough to be able to buy shotgun ammunition, used in bird hunting, for practice.
Only when athletes attend competitions are they given bullets for practice, according to the coach.
“The biggest headache is that as the athletes train without bullets, we cannot evaluate their skills and ability,” Nam added.
A member of the national shooting team and a Southeast Asian Games medalist told Tuoi Tre that ammunition shortages are not uncommon for the country’s shooters because bullets are expensive.
“However, that a team has not had a single bullet to practice with for a whole year is unprecedented,” he said, preferring to remain anonymous.
The shooter underlined that there is a big difference between training with and without bullets.
“Constantly practicing with no bullets just makes our skills poorer,” he said. “We become discouraged and usually have to end the training session early.”
Every member of the shooting team of the northern city of Hai Phong, for example, is granted an average of three bullets per month.
“We do not know when to use these ‘precious’ bullets,” coach Pham Cao Son said.
In addition, some Hai Phong shooters have been using plastic bottles filled with sand to hone their skills.
The situation is brighter for Vinh and Tran Quoc Cuong however, as Vietnam’s top performing shooters.
During their sessions in preparation for Rio 2016, Vinh and Cuong were each given 100 rounds of ammunition a day for practice.
Even still, at the national training center in Hanoi, all representative shooters are forced to practice with paper targets, at a time when all international competitions use electronic ones.
“Under these conditions, it is no surprise that Vietnam never grabbed an Olympic medal,” Nguyen Hong Minh, who used to lead Team Vietnam at Olympic events, told Tuoi Tre on Sunday.
“The gold medal of Vinh is truly exceptional.”