Defending Olympic champion in the men’s javelin throw, Germany’s Thomas Roehler, pulled out of the Tokyo Games on Monday because of a back injury.
Estonia’s Magnus Kirt, the silver medallist from the 2019 World Championships in Doha, had pulled out of the Olympics a fortnight ago because of a leg injury.
Does the absence of two of the top throwers brighten India’s Neeraj Chopra’s chances for winning an elusive track and field medal?
In his first competition in over a year, Chopra improved the national record by a centimetre to 88.07 metres at the Indian Grand Prix 3 in Patiala in early March.
He is ranked fourth in the world as per World Athletics rankings.
At the Federation Cup at the same venue a few days later, Chopra registered 87.80 metres, a reflection of his consistency.
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Since he moved base to Europe earlier this month, the 23-year-old has participated in three competitions and gradually hit his stride.
At the Kuortane Games in Finland on Saturday, Chopra had a best throw of 86.79 metres to finish third, an improvement on the 83.18 metres in Lisbon and 80.96 metres at the Karlstad Grand Prix in Sweden.
The hot favourite to win the Olympic gold is Germany’s Johannes Vetter who has consistently thrown over 90 metres, with a season’s best of 96.29 metres at Silesia (Poland) last month at the European Athletics Team Championships.
It was the third best throw ever after Jan Zelezny’s world record of 98.48 metres set 25 years ago, and Vetter’s personal best of 97.76 metres in September last year.
He experienced a niggle in his adductor muscle in Silesia, but returned to competition at the Kuortane Games with a throw of 93.59 metres to win gold.
Top athletes who have qualified don’t fully stretch themselves (Vetter being an exception) before the Olympics, so current form is not an accurate reflection.
Vetter is the favourite but Chopra will face tough competition from experienced throwers.
London Olympics gold medallist Keshorn Walcott of Trinidad and Tobago finished second at the Kuortane Games with a best throw of 89.12 m.
Reigning world champion Anderson Peters of Grenada managed just 83.46 metres at the same competition. Peters’ form has tapered off but he is someone who knows what it takes to win an Olympic medal.
Poland’s Marcin Krukowski produced a personal best of 89.55 metres, and is second after Vetter this season.
Gatis Čakss, the 2014 World Junior Champion from Latvia, has also thrown his personal best this season (87.57 metres), and is fifth just behind Chopra in this year’s list.
Juilan Webber from Germany (personal best of 88.29 m) and a pair of Belarussians — Aliaksei Katkavets and Pavel Mialeshka — could be dark horses.
Chopra, going by potential and form, is India’s best chance for a historic medal in track and field. Roehler and Kirt pulling out has improved his prospects.
However, though he will have the experience of participating in the Diamond League and winning gold at the Asian Games (88.06 m) and the Commonwealth Games (86.47 m), he is a first-time Olympian.
He must remain injury-free and not let the big occasion get to him. What will hold him in good stead is his ability to consistently throw in the 86 to 88-metre range when it matters.
The 25-year-old is an Asian Athletics Championship silver medallist from 2019, where he produced his personal best of 86.23 metres. This season, he is ranked 26th in the world with a best throw of 81.63 metres.
What distance is likely to get a podium finish?
That is a tricky question. The javelin is a technical event known to throw up surprises, and athletes may be affected by nerves or conditions, including wind direction.
An example from the 2012 London Olympics is of Walcott upsetting Andreas Thorkildsen of Norway, the dominant thrower back then, and Finland’s Tero Pitkämäki.
Walcott won gold at 84.58 metres, which showed that on the biggest stage it is more than just current form which decides the top three.
At the Rio Olympics five years ago, Roehler won gold at 90.30 metres while silver and bronze went at 88.24 and 85.38 metres.
Two years ago at the Doha World Championships, Vetter, Kirt and Peters took the top three places with 89.35, 88.36 and 85.34 metres respectively.