After winning the gold in skeet shooting in London four years ago, her fifth Olympic medal, Kim Rhode expected to be asked about representing her country or her impressive Olympic record. Instead, she was asked about the movie-theater massacre in Aurora, Colo., which had happened 10 days earlier.
Olympic swimmers aren’t asked about pool safety. Cyclists aren’t asked about helmet laws. But the sport of Olympic target-shooting is inextricably linked with the American debate over guns, and given the intensity of the discussion, there’s no way to avoid it. Because of that, Rhode, who has been winning medals regularly since Atlanta in 1996 but remains largely anonymous among U.S. Olympians, said there is a “stigmatism attached to the sport.”
“When it comes to shooting,” Rhode said, “we tend to get lumped in with that.”
There’s a complicated duality involved. The American shooters, some of whom are part of an elite Army marksmanship unit, want to be considered high-performance athletes on the world stage, same as the divers and gymnasts. Yet they’re also not shy about taking what could be construed as partisan stands in the heated political climate that surrounds gun control, gun rights and the Second Amendment. Rhode, a 37-year-old Californian, was one of three current or former Olympians who spoke at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, along with hockey player Mike Eruzione and speed-skater Derek Parra.
In January, USA Shooting, the sport’s national governing body, adopted a PR campaign called “Shooting is My Olympic Sport.” It was designed to energize the sports community and, as one USA Shooting executive put it in an email, provide “the positive example for a gun culture in desperate need of a changed narrative.”
As competitors in an Olympic discipline, athletes shoot pistols, rifles and shotguns as well as air pistols and air rifles at mounted and flying targets. The equipment is highly technical and extraordinarily expensive, almost all of it from overseas. (Matt Emmons, a three-time medalist, moved from New Jersey to the Czech Republic to train.) None of it is available at Wal-Mart or at a gun show at the fairgrounds. The training is intense.
“You cannot be an idiot and be a good shooter,” Emmons said. “There is just too much that goes into this game.”
The roots of the sport, though, are simple and go back centuries, an essential part of the American frontier experience. There’s a straight line to be drawn from plunking cans set on a rail fence with a BB gun straight to the Olympic shooting range in Rio, just as there’s a line to be drawn from a driveway hoop to the NBA players on the U.S. basketball team.
N.C. State rising senior Lucas Kozeniesky, who is competing in his first Olympics in air rifle, said there are questions about the sport on the N.C. State campus, where the Wolfpack has competed in NCAA-sanctioned rifle competitions for decades.
“There have been a couple times I’ve been sitting in the dining hall at school, or back in high school, talking about rifle, and people ask, ‘Why is this a thing? People die from gun violence,’ ” Kozeniesky said. “I always answer the same way: This is a sport, and a firearm is a tool. How you use it is up to you.”
It is unquestionably a political minefield in an environment that is supposed to be apolitical, at least ideally. Even the most hardened gun-control advocate would find it impossible to argue against the value of target shooting as a skill or a sport, yet USA Shooting’s campaign alludes to some of the pillars of gun-rights activism, referring directly to “passion, advocacy, nationalistic pride and tradition.”
“Unfortunately our sport does get wrapped up into the bigger picture of things,” Rhode said. “At the same time, we are all shooters, we are all avid outdoorsmen and we all definitely back and support the Second Amendment. It kind of goes hand-in-hand.”
Shooting also has been one of America’s biggest Olympic medal generators, historically: The shooting team has won 108 medals, including 51 golds – accounting for more than 5 percent of all the gold medals the United States has ever won. The U.S. team has high expectations for Rio, with 13 previous medalists among its 20 shooters. Despite that, these productive U.S. athletes remain largely anonymous compared with their peers.
Worldwide, they’re much bigger stars, ironically enough in countries where public gun ownership is severely restricted and there is no debate over gun control. In Brazil, for example, the Army is guarding the competitors’ weapons when they’re not being used in competition. At home, where the debate over gun rights and gun control continues unabated, these athletes find themselves in the middle of it, unavoidably, because of the politically charged utensils their sport requires.
“When you look at things like sponsorships and stuff like that, most of our sponsors come from within our industry,” Rhode said. “We don’t get the more general-type sponsors. Part of that is because of the fact that we do shoot. But with that being said, hopefully things will change and hopefully people will recognize it as the sport that it is. We definitely put in a lot of hours and train and travel and have World Cups and competitions, the same as everyone else.”
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock