Blunder bus: how Dorset shooting range became target of Indian ire
Think of the quiet life and you may not pick the Shotgun World Cup as a likely setting. But you would at least expect a minority sport, in a corner of Dorset, to be free from international incident, wouldn't you?
Not so. Over the weekend, the Southern Counties Shooting Ground became a diplomatic battleground - unfortunate for an event, one of 64 supported by UK Sport during the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, which was supposed to persuade the world's top shooters to train there ahead of the Games
The row erupted when members of the Indian team complained of "harassment" from British bus drivers ferrying competitors to and from the venue.
A lengthy political narrative ensued, involving India's sports minister, the Indian High Commission in London, and wildly differing versions of what some might call relatively trivial events. While this played out, British shooters like Richard Faulds and Peter Wilson desperately tried to concentrate on the task at hand: their double-trap final.
The story has been prominently displayed on the front pages of Indian news websites, shocked at the perceived insult to their national team. Organisers of the event - the first of its kind to be held in the United Kingdom - can scarcely believe this has occurred, but now say they are learning important lessons ahead of London 2012.
Explaining the entire debacle would take forever but, to simplify things, the Indian team came over with travellers' cheques to pay their fees for entry into the competition, which did not sit well with the organisers.
A dispute over the payment of those fees arose, including the cash which paid for bus travel to and from the venue. Manavjit Singh Sandhu, an Indian Commonwealth gold medallist in trap shooting, takes up the story:
"The trouble started when two of our girls were offloaded from the bus. Due to administrative problems they took the shooters off, which we thought was weird, because you should sort those out with administrators rather than pull people off buses.
"Then I got onto the bus a day after and it was leaving but one of my team-mates was knocking on the door. I asked the bus driver to let him on but she refused, saying it was time to go. It was absurd, it would have only taken six or seven seconds.
"She walked out of the bus in a huff and a transport manager came on who yelled and screamed at me, and tried to force me off the bus. I've never come across such rude behaviour. Normally organisers accommodate the sportsmen, they go out of their way to make sure you get what you need.
"So the team management complained to the Indian High Commission and now the gentlemen concerned have tendered a written apology. That's fine by me, and I'm ready to get back to work."
That apology came in the form of a carefully worded statement from the organisers, which apologised for "any misunderstandings which may have occurred on both sides". In other words, they feel the Indians should take some of the blame - for example, the BBC understands the bus driver alleges foul language was directed at her.
Peter Underhill, left, shakes hands with India's Manavjit Singh Sandhu. Photo: BBC
This all ended in an incredibly awkward on-camera handshake between the Indian team and British organising chairman Peter Underhill, but not before the news was splashed across some Indian media, which had made a national hero of rifle shooter Abhinav Bindra when he won Olympic gold in Beijing two years ago - the first individual Olympic gold medal in Indian history and one which pushed shooting higher up India's national sporting agenda.
The Times of India ran its tale of "shotgun harassment" as a top story, at one point the most-read on its site, while the Deccan Chronicle carried quotes complaining of the "humiliation" of the Indian team, and some other sites made even wilder accusations.
Organisers, who would bite your arm off for a lone column inch in a British national newspaper, have been staggered to find rows of Indian reporters camped out on the grassy square outside the clubhouse, none more so than the quietly spoken Underhill.
"There have been misunderstandings," he admitted, gingerly. "But we have had meetings and apologised if we have caused any offence through mishandling of the transport arrangements. We're working together to get things on an even keel - which they are.
"There was a communication failure on the bus but I don't think it has overshadowed the event, although, obviously, we are disappointed the Indian team felt they had to play this one out in the media rather than following the usual channels.
"I don't know how that happened - it's unfortunate - but this is one of the great advantages of holding an event like this, two years before London 2012. It's not just about the physical ability to hold the event, but we must all learn, from volunteers to the top of the organising committees, about cultural differences and handling people.
"As much as anything else, it's a communication factor and we've all got to learn that. This has been a learning experience and it'll stand us in good stead on the road to 2012."
Britain's Peter Wilson, left, in his first senior World Cup final. Photo: BBC
In between reading the views of Indian sports minister MS Gill and watching Indian delegates signing joint statements, it was a relief to actually watch some double trap shotgun, yards away from the diplomatic fracas.
Shotgun is one of three Olympic shooting disciplines (rifle and pistol being the other two) and the one at which Britain is strongest - Faulds, gold medallist at Sydney 2000, Steven Scott, Elena Allen and Charlotte Kerwood were four of GB's five-person shooting team in Beijing.
The team had been set a target of two medals but came back empty-handed. Following similar disappointment in Athens, that saw funding slashed by 75% in 2009, with 46 funded competitors reduced to five and top coaches departing the team.
However, the sport has been rebuilding in new, leaner times, and British 23-year-old Wilson has emerged as a rising star.
Wilson, who grew up so close that he could hear this shooting ground from his back garden, reached his first World Cup final in style, but struggled to maintain his form and had to settle for fifth place in the six-man finale.
"My goal was to make the final. I was disappointed in the final but the competition was absolutely brilliant, I loved it," he said.
"That was my new personal best across the board, and I don't think I pushed myself to the absolute limit. Towards the end of the year I think I can go one or two further.
"Richard Faulds is an Olympic gold medallist and that's exactly what I want to be in future, so I don't know whether I can overhaul him, but I'll just take every day as it comes.
Asked if the diplomatic circus taking place in his peripheral vision had registered, Wilson admitted he had "noticed it", but added: "If you get involved in things like that, you only make your own shooting worse, so it was best just to get my head down.
"I don't know the ins and outs - it would be lovely if we had front page news back here, whether it was good or bad, but it's a shame that the Indians had trouble."
Whether Wilson can now go on to outgun Faulds, who struggled in the intermittent rain and nagging wind, ahead of London 2012 remains to be seen, despite easily bettering him here.
Faulds, 33, finished miles off a place in the final but - as this is just one of five World Cup stages held this year - insists he is biding his time for competitions which really count.
"I'm disappointed not to have shot slightly better, but I haven't done a huge amount of training for this stage of the Olympic cycle. I'm focusing on later in the year, and next year, when Olympic qualifying places become available. [The qualification process for the 2012 London Olympics will not begin until the ISSF World Championships in Munich, starting 29 July.]
"So many people are capable of winning these events and Peter Wilson is without doubt one of them. He's very committed, he loves his shooting and if he sticks at it then there's no reason why he won't be there alongside me at 2012.
"But it's a very long road. You have to stick with it through the highs and the lows. You need to be long-sighted and look forward to your long-term goals."
Wise advice not only for Wilson, but British organisers too. The weekend's controversy may be holding front pages in India, but those with responsibility for London 2012 need to act like top athletes: ignore the commotion, reflect on what happened, and keep improving.