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Friday, September 24, 2021

87.58 m, a billion hearts, first athletics medal: Neeraj Chopra makes history

The moment he released the javelin, he was so sure it would at least be his personal best that he turned to his coaches, and lifted his arms to celebrate. But Chopra was wrong. It wasn’t his personal best. The throw, which travelled 87.58 m, made him an Olympic champion.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Tokyo |
Updated: August 8, 2021 11:38:47 am
Neeraj ChopraNeeraj Chopra’s gold ensured India ended the Games on a high. (Photo: PTI)

Neeraj Chopra didn’t even give it a second glance.

The moment he released the javelin, he was so sure it would at least be his personal best that he turned to his coaches, and lifted his arms to celebrate. But Chopra was wrong. It wasn’t his personal best. The throw, which travelled 87.58 m, made him an Olympic champion.

For 100 years, Indian athletics has only been about stories of near-misses, shattered dreams and enduring heartbreaks. When the time finally came — at 9.07 pm on a muggy night at Tokyo’s National Stadium — the sport struck gold.

Chopra’s medal, which came a little more than an hour after wrestler Bajrang Punia won a bronze in the 65-kg weight class, also ensured India’s Olympic sojourn ended on a high.

Neeraj Chopra, Neeraj Chopra gold medal, Neeraj Chopra Tokyo Olympics, Neeraj Chopra olympics best throw, Neeraj Chopra medal ceremony Neeraj Chopra during his run-up during the Tokyo Olympics javelin throw final. (Reuters Photo)

Tokyo 2020 will go down as the country’s most successful campaign, with a total of seven medals — 1 gold, 2 silver and 4 bronze.

The glitter of the javelin gold, India’s first since Abhinav Bindra became an Olympic champion at the 2008 Beijing Games, will endure for long.

Chopra didn’t just finish on top of the podium Saturday night. He did it with such ease, such dominance that it was very uncharacteristically Indian, especially in a sport like athletics where the country’s athletes have notoriously underperformed.

It was poetic in a way that on the morning Chopra won the elusive medal, an Indian athlete fell agonisingly short of a podium finish in golf. Aditi Ashok showed incredible grit and focus to remain in contention till the very end but finished fourth, joining the heartbreak club that has some of the country’s illustrious athletes.

Chopra dedicated his medal to all of them, but first and foremost to the legendary Milkha Singh, who passed away recently due to Covid-19 related complications.

“First of all, I dedicate my gold medal to Milkha Singh Sir. He had longed to see this day and I hope he had been watching this from the heavens,” Chopra said. “Then, to so many others who came close, including PT Usha ma’am. This medal is also for all of them.”

Neeraj Chopra, Neeraj Chopra gold medal, Neeraj Chopra Tokyo Olympics, Neeraj Chopra olympics best throw, Neeraj Chopra medal ceremony Gold medalist Neeraj Chopra, of India, reacts as he stands on the podium for the medal ceremony for the men’s javelin throw at the 2020 Summer Olympics. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Not the biggest or bulkiest of throwers, he relied on speed to generate power in his throws. Second in the starting list for the final, he laid down the gauntlet in a tough field with a massive throw of 87.03 m.

“That was our strategy,” his coach Klaus Bartonietz said. “We wanted to put pressure on the rest of the field straightaway and the only way we could do that was by throwing big.”

It was one of those rare days when everything aligned perfectly for Chopra. He looked calm and relaxed, had a sip of an energy drink just before his turn came and announced his intention. With the second throw, he went farther, recording 87.58 m.

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Chopra being way ahead of the field was not the biggest surprise. He had done that during the qualifying round as well, but with the weather a lot clearer but equally humid on Saturday, it was expected that others, including the sport’s current biggest star Johannes Vetter, would raise his game.

Vetter was the outright favourite to win gold, having recorded throws of 90-plus metres for fun this year. But he had been having troubles with his technique and had complained about the track being slippery.

Vetter didn’t look comfortable during the final as well, struggling to get a proper grip on the surface and slipping multiple times. After a first attempt of 82.52 m, he turned over his ankle and slipped during his next throw. His third throw, like the second, was also a foul.

With the world’s best javelin thrower in the last 12 months out of the fray, others struggled to come close to Chopra’s effort. The next best throw, by Czech Republic’s Jakub Vadlejch, was almost a metre short and the bronze medal winner, Vitezslav Vesely, was a good 2.14 m behind the Indian.

“The plan was just to go after my personal best. I knew if I matched that, I would finish on the podium,” Chopra said.

He did finish on the podium, on the top too. When he was presented the medal, Chopra held it firmly, planted a kiss and put it around his neck. And as the national anthem played out in this gigantic stadium, he teared up. The only time in the night he seemed overawed.

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