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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Well begun is half done

While Vetter’s fidgety restlessness preceded his reputation as the 90+ thrower, coming into the Olympics he was struggling to find his rhythm, which would’ve given Chopra confidence.

Written by Shivani Naik |
Updated: August 8, 2021 11:42:25 pm
Neeraj Chopra, Neeraj Chopra gold medal, Neeraj Chopra Tokyo Olympics, Neeraj Chopra olympics best throw, Neeraj Chopra medal ceremonyNeeraj Chopra won India's first gold medal in Olympic track and field at the Tokyo Games. (Reuters)

The 87.03 metres throw. Not to be mistaken for that 87.58 metres one which fetched Neeraj Chopra the gold.

Chopra’s first rush in the final – the opening act, India’s first step in track & field, Chopra’s rocket take-off, his open challenge to Johannes Vetter to see who was better on the big night – was the defining moment of India’s 2020+1 Olympics climax. The 87.03 joined a pantheon of statistical coincidences, harbingers of blazing medals India has won over the years in Olympic finals.

That the gold medal was sealed with the very first of six throws is clear. Some might even say that the message went out to the field in qualification itself. Chopra 86.65m bt Vetter 85.64m.

But on Finals Day, it was the 87.03m that set the tone, even while it was clear that 85m was going to be the new 90m of javelin this summer. While Chopra contemplated gunning for the Olympic record (90.5m) as well as his personal best, it was the impact first throw and “steady” second that actually brought home the gold.

“If your first throw is good, you gain confidence. And it also automatically puts pressure on all the other athletes plus you yourself feel good about yourself,” he would explain later.

But going big on the first throw sits nicely with all of India’s medals that have come on the back of aggressive opening attempts in Finals.

Abhinav Bindra’s 10.7 on the first shot in the Beijing 10m air rifle Finals. Gold. Gagan Narang’s 10.7 four years later in London. Bronze. Vijay Kumar’s 5/5 in Rapid Fire Pistol. Silver. Shooting success has come on the back of that first near-perfect shot.

A good start sets the ball rolling, though the last shot could be just as important, or any other attempts delivered in the course of a final. So, Bindra bookended his final with 10.7 and a Hulking 10.8. Narang finished with another monster 10.7. The confident first stride – either to take the lead, like Chopra did (and never let go) when the best effort gets the medal, or to get into the groove, when scores add up – has been the hallmark of forays into medal territory.

Finals for Indians have also gone downhill if the starts were poor, middling or simply not enormous. In shooting, Jitu Rai (9.5), Joydeep Karmakar (10.1) previously, and Saurabh Chaudhary (10.1) in Tokyo, are cases in point.

The 7s and 8s in Archery this time to kick off for Deepika Kumari and Atanu Das have proven more damaging than anything in the clutch – which is assumed to be the weakness. But the poor starts can bring challenges undone.

Psychology of a fast start

An 87.03m to kick off the contest dumped almighty pressure on Vetter, and also put the gold seemingly out of reach of the Czechs and German Webber. While it may be simplistic to assume that Chopra was the form player going into Tokyo, it will rank as one of the smartest tactics to go all-out at the start, and draw desperation and rushed mistakes from Vetter by baiting him to go for ‘90m or no gold’ scenario.

While the top eight throwers got six attempts, the bar was set on an above-average 87m throw at the outset, which surely would’ve upset their own pacing or momentum-building, knowing that Chopra had fired home a biggie and might have enough in the tank to go even further.

While Vetter’s fidgety restlessness preceded his reputation as the 90+ thrower, coming into the Olympics he was struggling to find his rhythm, which would’ve given Chopra confidence. Still, it was audacious to go for 85+ in qualification, way above the expected 82-mark. And to sow nettling doubts about just how much further he could go.

As gold medals go, this was taking it away from the field in a fast-break even before others could settle in and grip their spears.

For India, the 210 kg entry of weightlifter Mirabai Chanu when she won silver was a bold start. It wasn’t that the Indian was intending to go straight for that total. But in what was a psychological masterstroke, the mere entry noting was bound to put pressure on Chinese Zhizhi Hou to think if her Snatch world record was in danger – even if it wasn’t.

India’s gold medals come in all manners. The first hockey team sent out in 1928 returned as Olympic champions, and then hockey couldn’t stop winning. Abhinav Bindra couldn’t stop standing still in deep focus to pick the first individual gold at Beijing. On Saturday, Neeraj Chopra’s javelin couldn’t stop flying. Not after a 87.03m first throw. Somewhere in between that first statement of intent and the elusive, coveted 90m mark, came the golden mark of 87.58m.

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