Tokyo 2020: How Neeraj Chopra made history

  • As his competitors fell short of the mark he had set and it was increasingly apparent that Chopra would become the first Indian athlete to win an Olympic medal in track and field, the 23-year-old thrower from Haryana kept his calm, simply waiting for each thrower to finish.
Neeraj Chopra won India its first gold medal of Tokyo Olympics. (Getty Images)
Neeraj Chopra won India its first gold medal of Tokyo Olympics. (Getty Images)
Published on Aug 08, 2021 01:10 AM IST
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ByAvishek Roy, Tokyo

A day before his big day, Neeraj Chopra could hardly sleep. He was excited, eager, a bundle of nervous energy.

He wanted to rush to the Olympic Stadium, stand there on the runway with his javelin, feel the spear in his hand, start running, start throwing.

“I felt as if my body was in flames,” Chopra said later. “There was so much energy in me.”

He had been feeling this way ever since he threw 85.65m in the qualifying on August 4, the kind of feeling that tells an athlete that his big moment is close.

“A real good feeling. My qualifying throw was very relaxed,” said Chopra. “The next two days in training I felt so good that I believed on this day I’m going to improve on my personal best.”

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So, on the day of the javelin throw final, the penultimate day of Tokyo 2020, Chopra woke up at 5:30am without meaning to, tried to sleep again but couldn’t, ate his breakfast and tried to sleep again without success, before giving up on it and spending the day visualizing his throw and his technique.

Chopra was the second person to throw in the final. He came charging in and it all clicked - the run smooth and fast, then the strong brake with his front leg, the whole energy from the run uncoiling behind it and into his throwing arm. A massive 87.03m. It immediately put the other eleven throwers under pressure.

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His second throw was even better, and Chopra knew it immediately, roaring in joy even before the javelin had landed.

“The feeling was good after the first throw and with the second throw I felt I had touched my personal best (88.07m), until the distance came,” he said.

After the first round of three throws, only Vitezslav Vesely (85.44m) from Czech Republic and Germany’s Julian Weber (85.30m) were anywhere close to Chopra.

There was already a big upset - Germany’s Johannes Vetter, the only man who has thrown over 90 metres this year with a 96.29m throw in May and whose personal best is the second best throw of all time, could not make the top eight with a throw of 82.52m.

“The first throw was important because it took the pressure off him and it meant straightaway he was leading,” said Chopra’s coach Klaus Bartonietz, a German biomechanical expert.

The second throw was really all that Chopra needed to do - in fact, even the first throw would have got him gold. At the end of the event, Czech Republic's Jakub Vadlejch came closest with his 5th attempt (86.67m) and Vesely finished third with 85.44m.

India had its first track and field medal at the Olympics, and it was a gold. If the moment was almost too good to believe, it did not feel like that for Chopra, who not only owned the day but later revealed that he felt that he could break the Olympic record of 90.57m.

“I turn into a different person when I’m on the field,” Chopra said. “You never know about javelin, anyone can have one good throw, so I was prepared to go all out and in doing that I put too much speed in two throws in between and went for a foul.”

As his competitors fell short of the mark he had set and it was increasingly apparent that Chopra would become the first Indian athlete to win an Olympic medal in track and field, the 23-year-old thrower from Haryana kept his calm, simply waiting for each thrower to finish. Then he took his last throw and bowed down on the runway.

“The javelin, runway, track is where most of my life has been spent,” he said. “To us it’s like a god. I wanted to give my thanks.”

There was a distinct possibility that this moment would not come at all. Back in 2016, when Chopra had set the junior world record with a throw of 86.48m, to come to the world’s notice, it had come just 12 days after the qualification cut-off date for the Rio Olympics. His throw was well above the qualification mark.

In 2018, Chopra, trained by some of the best throwers in the world in the late Australian coach Gary Calvert and then Germany’s former legendary thrower Uwe Hohn, was on a roll. He breached the 85m mark, the qualification mark for the Olympics, on nine occasions.

At the Commonwealth Games, he recorded a throw of 86.47 for the gold and improved the distance to 88.06, his personal best and sixth best in world for the season, at the Jakarta Asian Games to win gold. Chopra was inching closer to challenging the very best in the world, inching closer to the 90m mark, when his flight was brutally cut short by an elbow injury.

It led to a surgery, then a lengthy lay-off, and with it, a big question mark - would he be able to get it back together for Tokyo?

For Indian javelin throwers, a serious injury that needed a surgery to the throwing arm would have simply meant the end of a career. But not for Chopra, who has had the opportunity to work with some of the best in the business - from the surgery to the rehabilitation - which he did at the Inspire Institute of Sports, in Bellary, Karnataka.

When he finally came back to competition in January 2020, he hit the qualification mark for the Olympics in his first event. Soon after that, the pandemic began and all sports came to a halt. Chopra bided his time, trying to keep his fitness going, holed up in the National Institute of Sports in Patiala - the long rehab had taught him both patience and how to work with his body.

"He knows when he should push and when he needs to give it a break,” said his Physio Ishaan Marwah. “Earlier when he was younger, even if he was in pain, his adrenaline rush would be so much that he wouldn’t care about aggravating it. After the injury he has gained maturity as an athlete. He listens to his body.”

Yet again, Chopra came out of isolation and in his very first competition, the Indian Grand Prix in Patiala in March, he bettered his own national record.

“I was thinking that I will break the record again here,” Chopra said, the Olympic gold around his neck. “Throw my personal best, but that did not happen. But there will be time for that, right now the Olympic gold is better. I almost cried on the podium, but then no tears came. But it was like a current was going through me.”

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Tuesday, November 30, 2021