Updated: August 5, 2021 6:44:10 am
Deep down in the bowels of the gigantic Olympic Stadium, Neeraj Chopra reveals one of his biggest ‘sacrifices’ in build up to the Olympics — chopping his long, flowy mane.
Then, he pauses for a second and stares at the television screen as his number one rival, and a friend outside competition, Johannes Vetter stands on top of his run up.
Minutes ago, Chopra had thrown the gauntlet on his first attempt; a massive throw of 86.65m to top the qualification round for Saturday’s final. Vetter, the favourite to win the javelin gold by a country mile and who clears 90m+ for fun, hadn’t even managed a throw of 84 in his first two attempts. Chopra’s eyes are glued to the screen.
Just before the start of the qualifying round, the two throwers had caught up on the track, joking about the sultry Tokyo weather. “He told me I should be used to this kind of heat, coming from India,” Chopra says, soaked in sweat. “But I was also in Europe for the last few months so this weather came as a little bit of a shock for me too.”
.@Neeraj_chopra1 made entering an Olympic final look so easy! 😲😱
Neeraj’s FIRST attempt of 86.65m in his FIRST-EVER #Olympics was recorded as the highest in men’s Group A, beating @jojo_javelin‘s 85.64m 👏#StrongerTogether | #UnitedByEmotion | #Tokyo2020 | #BestOfTokyo pic.twitter.com/U4eYHBVrjG
— #Tokyo2020 for India (@Tokyo2020hi) August 4, 2021
The Indian was 16th in the list of starters for the qualification round. He saw Vetter ‘struggle’ in his first attempt, which sowed some seeds of doubt in his mind as well. “He is a world champion and a world class thrower but was struggling a bit so I thought, ‘conditions seem to be tough’,” Chopra says.
The 23-year-old wasn’t expecting anything different: he had to adopt a vastly different routine on the morning of his Olympic debut.
Chopra isn’t a morning person, so to wake up at 5.15am for the event that was to begin at 9 was the first challenge of the day for him. “It’s the first time we are competing at this hour. So that was another adjustment we had to make.”
He performed some basic stretches, ate a light breakfast and reached the stadium two hours before his event and then had to wait for another hour at the drab call rooms — one outside the main stadium and another in the basement before being eventually led out into the middle. “There were nerves. I had tried to imagine what throwing at an Olympics would feel like but I was still a little nervous,” Chopra says. “But the moment I stepped on the track, all my nervousness was gone.”
Ater the first warm-up throw, which fell below his expectations, there were some jitters. Chopra ran hard and released the spear with all power he could generate to make his body ready for the main event. The javelin took off, went as high as the third tier of the stadium, suddenly dipped and fell way short.
“I turned to my coach,” Chopra says. “He told me to complete my follow through as I was a bit stiff in that.”
Then, there was another small technical issue. The Olympic Stadium is an enclosed arena and in the mornings, especially hot ones like on Wednesday, there’s barely any wind closer to the ground level.
“So I decided to throw a little flatter, which would mean there would be not much turbulence and the javelin will travel longer,” Chopra says.
With these two quick notes from his warm-up throws, Chopra stood on the top of the run-up with just one target: clear the qualification mark of 83.50m. Only one thrower, Finland’s Lassi Etelatalo had managed it thus far with a huge attempt of 84.50m.
There was a glint in Chopra’s eyes the moment he released the javelin and as it took off, he broke into a huge smile. When it landed, it was clear that he had thrown farther than the entire field. “That was my plan, to secure qualification with the first throw itself. I’m glad it worked out perfectly,” he says.
Chopra looked relaxed, and is in a chatty mood. He opens up about the life, or the lack of it, in the Olympic Village, following Sindhu’s medal run and hockey teams’ historic wins on a mobile phone and his new look.
“I liked keeping long hair, but when I was in Switzerland. I didn’t compete since I wasn’t feeling completely fit. So I got a haircut there. Then in Sweden I cut my hair shorter assuming it’ll be very hot in Tokyo and then I’d have to spend more time grooming my hair” he laughs. “Baal toh baad mein badh jaenge, par medal toh teen saal baad hi ( hair will grow, but medal will only come in the years)”
Just then, Vetter lined up for his last attempt. The German giant had been struggling with what he called ‘technical issues’ and it came down to the last throw for him. Chopra leans in slightly to watch as Vetter lets the javelin fly. It loops, dips and falls at a distance of 85.64m, 1.1 short of Chopra but comfortably within the qualification mark.
Chopra smiles. “Chalo, acha hai.”