Straddled between the 5,000 m and women’s high jump, the javelin throw at the Metricon Stadium, Gold Coast begins in anonymity on Saturday, in a far corner. A majority of the 30,000-odd spectators are glued to the high jump, where the home favourite Nicola McDermott is defying gravity and expectations to leap into medal contention. The roar every time she attempts a jump is resounding. In the midst of this, the javelin throw goes unnoticed, until a spear sailing over from one end of the stadium to another catches their attention. By the time it lands in the soft green grass, the javelin has covered 85.50 m. For the first time this morning, the cheer isn’t for an Australian athlete.
It’s for Neeraj Chopra, who removes his red jacket to reveal his big, muscular frame. He raises his left arm and flings it behind him. With the right hand, he hoists the 2.7-m-long metal spear, which weighs nearly 2 pounds, and checks his grip. But before he can mark his run-up, he has to wait, for the 5,000 m runners to pass his side of the track.
With the sun beating down his back, the 20-year-old then brings the javelin parallel to the ground and, with a jogging start, launches it with the kind of deep growl that can be heard at the other end of the stadium. When he loses his balance and falls face-down, he gets up with a smile, to launch the javelin again. This time it travels 86.47 m, or 283 feet.
With that throw, Chopra clinches the gold, dashing whatever little hopes Australia’s Hamish Peacock had. And gives India its first track and field gold at Gold Coast, and its maiden medal in javelin throw.
On a day when India won eight gold medals out of the 44 on offer, Chopra’s will remain one of the more cherished ones, perhaps because of the quality of the field he competed in and the rarity of the medals. He is only the fourth athlete from the country to win an individual gold in athletics at the Commonwealth Games, after Milkha Singh in 1958, Krishna Poonia in 2010 and Vikas Gowda in 2014.
But Chopra belongs to a generation of Indian athletes who ooze coolness. They aren’t overwhelmed by big occasions, unlike Indian athletes of yore. At the Athletes Village, they do not restrict themselves to their rooms, hesitant because of the language barrier.
The confidence with which he carries himself has contributed to Chopra’s dramatic rise as the new face of Indian athletics. Son of a farmer from Panipat’s Khandra village, he never had formal training in javelin throw in his early years. Instead, he learnt the basics of the sport by watching videos on YouTube, until a local coach began to train him.
In 2016, he became the first Indian athlete to be crowned the world champion in field events, albeit in the juniors, clinching the gold at the U-20 World Championships in Poland. He also set the junior world record in the process, with his throw of 86.48 m surpassing the previous mark of 84.69 m set by Latvia’s Zigisimunds Sirmais.
His surging graph suffered a temporary blip when he was forced to train without a coach for a brief period, after Gary Calvert, under whom he first set the national record, decided to quit after he developed differences with the federation. Soon after, he failed to qualify for the final of the World Championships in London last year.
Back then, Peacock finished one spot ahead of Chopra. So the Commonwealth Games were a test of Chopra’s credentials, especially how he handled the pressure that comes with the tag of being the favourite.
Chopra now trains under Uwe Hohn, the only man to throw the javelin over 100 metres, and has also had a training stint in Germany. At Gold Coast on Saturday, Chopra threw 85.50 m in his first attempt, rattling the rest of the field. “It put me in a lot of pressure, especially since a lot of people started cheering him on,” Peacock admitted.
Eventually, the Australian couldn’t go beyond the 82 m mark while Chopra bettered his season’s best — 85.94 m — with 86.47m in his fourth attempt. It fell just a centimetre short of his personal best of 86.48 m, the only regret he carries home. “I knew gold medal was a possibility after the first throw. After that, I was just trying to improve my personal best. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do that,” Chopra said.
By the time the session ended, Chopra was being hounded for pictures and autographs as he performed a lap of honour. He was interrupted by the medal ceremony of the 4×100 m relay. On a day where he looked unstoppable, only something like that could have halted his march.