After Neeraj Chopra, enter Devendra Jhajharia | Olympics - Hindustan Times

After Neeraj Chopra, enter Devendra Jhajharia

ByRutvick Mehta, Mumbai
Aug 18, 2021 11:26 PM IST

Jhajharia is aiming to win an unprecedented third javelin gold in his category at the Tokyo Paralympics starting on August 24.

Devendra Jhajharia might have turned 40, but those taunts thrown at him when he was just a child are still fresh for him.

Devendra Jhajharia, paralympic javelin thrower
Devendra Jhajharia, paralympic javelin thrower

Jhajharia was eight when his left hand was amputated after coming in contact with a high-power electric wire while climbing a tree in his village Churu in Rajasthan. Called “weak” by his friends after the mishap, the boy picked up the javelin to fight that label.

“I heard so many things as a kid,” Jhajharia said. “I wouldn’t be allowed to enter the ground. They used to laugh at me, joke about me, saying ‘tera ek haat hi nahi hai, throw kaise karega (You don’t have one hand, how will you throw)?”

Jhajharia’s one hand has given India two gold medals at the Paralympics and will be gunning for a third at the Tokyo Paralympics beginning from August 24.

He is the only Indian with two individual gold medals in either the Olympics or the Paralympics, winning the javelin throw in the F46 category at the 2004 Athens and 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. Both were world record throws--62.15m in Athens and 63.97m in Rio.

That Rio mark stands in danger of being wiped off again in Tokyo, with Jhajharia touching 65.71m during a national selection trial in New Delhi last month. It swelled his eyes with tears, bringing back memories of his father, who passed away in October last year, standing tall beside him against those who belittled his aspirations.

“It was my first competition without the presence of my father, so when I did that without him watching, I got very emotional,” Jhajharia said.

It was also his first competitive event in more than a year. The lockdown from March last year forced him to remain in his village for around five months, during which all he could do was a bit of weight training using old dumbbells and empty gas cylinders, exercising with car tyres and shadow throwing with a rusted javelin. Jhajharia returned to the Sports Authority of India centre in Gandhinagar in July. In November, Covid-19 struck him.

“I’ve never been away from my javelin for as long as I have in the last year or so. Battling Covid was a challenge. I gained weight being inactive, and have shed 7kgs after getting back to training,” he said.

With uncertainty around the Paralympics during that time, Jhajharia, nearing 40 with almost two decades of competing at the top level with two Paralympic gold medals to show, could well have given himself a pat on the back and hung up his boots.

What stopped him from doing so? “Honestly, I don’t know anything else apart from javelin throw. The one-year delay (of the Paralympics) forced me to think hard about my future. But I would watch my old videos and photos, aur ek josh aata tha usko dekh kar (it would energise me).

“And more than anything else, I love that my sport allows me to see myself winning a medal for my country."

That’s the only thought that kept him in the sport when he stood on the brink of giving it up around a decade ago. After his gold in Athens, Jhajharia’s F46 category (upper limb/s affected by limb deficiency, impaired muscle power or impaired passive range of movement) was scrapped for the 2008 Beijing Games. When he learnt that it also didn’t find a place at the 2012 London Paralympics, Jhajharia reckoned it was best for him to take a backseat and play the supporting role in seeing his wife Manju—a national kabaddi player—make it to the international stage while they started a family.

“But my wife said, ‘No, you shouldn’t stop. You can play till 2016 (Rio Paralympics), and I know you have it in you to win a medal there’. That was a very difficult phase in my career. Had my wife not told me that, I would have left the sport,” Jhajharia said.

Instead, he was back at it, restarting training in 2012. “At the 2013 World Championships, I won gold. That’s when I knew my decision to carry on was right,” he says. A silver at the 2014 Asian Para Games followed, and another one at the 2015 Worlds. “And then my event came back in Rio. And I won the gold again. And I broke the world record again.”

Simple as that. Not quite.

Jhajharia has had to evolve in his mind and body from 2004 to 2021; from being a rookie fresh out of college in Athens to a seasoned campaigner in Rio to India’s most successful Paralympian expected to deliver again in Tokyo. What he has lost in agility and speed with age is compensated by better technique and training efficiency.

“For example, I often look at my back history: where I performed well and how I trained for that. So there is a lot of planning involved in my training now, which wasn’t the case earlier. I’m also a bit stronger technically,” Jhajharia said.

What has also evolved is the awareness about Paralympics and para sports in the country, with Jhajharia—who in 2017 became the first para athlete to be conferred the Khel Ratna award—being at the forefront of it. “In 2004 before heading to Athens, there was only one person who came to send me off at the airport: my father. Today, the Prime Minister is speaking to me and my family before I go to Tokyo. I feel like the entire country is behind me,” Jhajharia said.

What hasn’t changed, however, is a promise. Before the Rio Paralympics, Jhajharia told his daughter that he’d come back home with a gold medal. He kept his word then. He wants to keep his word now.

“My daughter is 10 now, so she understands things. She told me, ‘papa, you’ve been far away for so long’. I said that I’m preparing for something. She replied, ‘Fine, but prepare for a gold medal’."

Jhajharia on Neeraj Chopra’s Tokyo gold

“I saw his every throw closely. His overall technique, especially the arm speed, was brilliant. He was technically the strongest thrower among the competitors, and that is the biggest reason for his victory. He was also mentally very strong; you could see the confidence on his face and in his eyes. Which, at that big stage, is a big deal. Neeraj ensured India’s first track and field Olympic medal is a gold, and for me it is extra special because he won it in my event. And I know very well how happy one feels after winning an Olympic gold.”

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