The Outside Bet

London Olympics Shooting MenThere is always a special thrill attached to a sporting event when an outsider wins.

Before the Men’s Trap event at the 2012 Olympics Giovanni Cernogoraz had had his moments, but over a career beginning in 1998 they had been few and far between.

Born in 1982 in Kapodistria, Slovenia, Cernogoraz – though he represented Croatia in the Olympics – also holds an Italian passport. This is not so unusual as there have been Italians living in what is now Croatia in the northern Adriatic region of Istria for centuries.

Descendents of Venetian-speaking settlers from what was then the Republic of Venice, they colonised the coastal area of Istria. Istrian-Italians are a small group but they have produced some notable sportsmen including the motor racing driver Mario Andretti.

The Cernogoraz family always shared the Italians’ passion for hunting. “My grandfather and father were both hunters, and as soon as I was old enough to handle a gun I joined them,” Giovanni says. In 1996, aged 14, Cernogoraz had his first taste of Trap shooting at his local club in Novigrad. This took the form of American Trap, which is popular in Croatia, but he quickly graduated to the Olympic discipline.

With small numbers of Olympic Trap shooters in Croatia, selection for the national team is a relatively simple affair. Without a squad system, it’s a matter of performing well in team selection shoots and placing among the top three. It was and is for most people a matter of funding yourself, so Cernogoraz was limited to the amount of shooting he could afford. He was, however, passionate about his shooting, and spent all the spare money he earned on the game, gradually gaining a belief in his own talent. At the time, he admits, that did not extend to becoming an Olympic Champion, but making the Croatian Team he considered a possibility.

Cernogoraz’s mastery of single barrel shooting won him the Olympic Gold Medal

Cernogoraz’s mastery of single barrel shooting won him the Olympic Gold Medal

Making his international debut as a Junior at the 1999 European Championships in Poussan in France, Cernogoraz was placed 32nd , but it was a beginning. Between then and 2003, Cernogoraz made nine appearances for Croatia as a Junior – three of them in the Double Trap Team where he made a final in 2002 at the European Championships in Lonato. Also in 2002, he first tasted real success, when at the World Championships in Lahiti he won the Junior Bronze medal in the Trap event. Two other promising Juniors were on the podium with him: 19-year-old Ed Ling of Great Britain, the new Junior World Champion, and Oguzhan Tuzun of Turkey, winner of the silver medal.

It is true of every international sport that there is a small group of regular winners, and behind them many others of genuine talent for whom losing becomes a habit. Good enough to compete at the highest level, but not good enough to win. This could have been said of Cernogoraz, who between 2003 and 2011 had made a final only once.

That was until the World Cup in Beijing, with quota places still to be won for the Olympics in London. Going into the final, Russia’s Alexey Alipov was in first position on 123 3×125 and second Giovanni Cernogoraz of Croatia on 121, Jiri Gach CZK a target behind on 120, with Marian Kovacocy SVK, Jiri Liptak CZE and Igor Chebanov RUS all on 119. It’s hard to beat a man that doesn’t miss and almost as difficult if he only misses once. Cernogoraz scored 24ex-25 for 145 beating Alipov by a target.

“I practise single-barrel a great deal,” says Cernogoraz. “There’s no point shooting a good score in the qualification rounds if you can’t compete in the final. It’s all about control, I don’t hurry with one shot, you can’t afford to.” His first medal win in nine years, but even more importantly an Olympic quota place for London 2012. Success can create more of the same and self-belief as well, but at the Olympic Prelim shoot in London the following April Cernogoraz’s star didn’t shine so brightly in the pouring rain. On the lunar landscape that was the unfinished shooting ground at Woolwich he missed the final by a target with a lot of others, but considering Alipov and Pellielo had led the field on 119 going into the final he had not done badly.

Victory at the Beijing World Cup won Cernogoraz his quota place for London 2012

Victory at the Beijing World Cup won Cernogoraz his quota place for London 2012

Perhaps Cernogoraz went to the European Championships in Cyprus the following month with a more relaxed and confident attitude than usual. The greatest prize in shooting awaited in London, but the European Championship was to be enjoyed and to see what could be achieved in the Mediterranean sunshine. Most of the usual cast were present: Alipov, Pellielo, Fabbrizi, Tuzun and the reigning Olympic Champion David Kostelecky, and some of them made the final together with Cernogoraz on 122. Pellielo and Alipov led with 123, Liptak, Anton Glasnovic, another Croatian, and Mario Filipovic of Slovakia were also on 122. Once again a superbly controlled 24 x 25 in the single barrel final won the day for Cernogoraz with a score of 146. Liptak scored 144 + 2, Glasnovic 144 + 1, Filipovic 143, Pellielo and Alipov with 141 were fifth and sixth respectively.

In the space of a few months the outsider had sprung a second surprise and was now the reigning European Champion.

London in August and the weather had improved but not by much. However, the surreal atmosphere the clay target range created with a view of suburban England through the green netting that was the background to the ranges had produced a high scoring event for the Men’s Trap.

Two times Olympic Champion and five times World Champion Australian Michael Diamond had shot 125 ex125, Fehaid Aldeehani; a 46 year old Double Trap shooter from Kuwait, was on 124; Italy’s Massimo Fabbrizi, a two times World Champion, and Jesus Serrano of Spain scored 123; and the Croatian Team comprising Cernogoraz and Anton Glasnovic had both scored 122. Having equalled the World and Olympic record, Michael Diamond’s single barrel game deserted him completely and he missed five targets for a total of 145. Fehaid Aldeehani shot 21 for the same total and subsequently beat the Australian into fourth place to take the Bronze medal. Jesus Serrano and Anton Glaznovic both added 21 to their scores and finished fifth and sixth respectively.

Olympic success tasted sweet for Cernogoraz, who has competed on the international circuit since 1999

Olympic success tasted sweet for Cernogoraz, who has competed on the international circuit since 1999

Massimo Fabbrizi had shot 23 in the final for 146 but Cernogoraz had again proved himself the master of the single barrel game and scored 24 to tie with him. In the tense sudden-death shoot off for the Olympic Championship under the most extreme pressure, Giovanni Cernogoraz never faltered against a man who, if not already an all time great, seems destined to be one. Less than a year before Cernogoraz had been a man from nowhere and a rank outsider, but during the final he kept his nerve and a vice-like grip on his chance of victory. This enabled him to defeat the Italian 5-4 and take the place of Olympic Trap champion.

At present Cernogoraz still works in the family restaurant and, although he has forsaken his Perazzi for a DT11 in a deal with Beretta, his life has not changed too much. But he will never be an outsider again.

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