Tokyo 2020: Neeraj Chopra scripts history cast in gold
- Chopra, the muscular 23-year-old from Haryana, became the first track and field medallist from independent India, only the second gold medallist in India’s Olympic history after Abhinav Bindra’s gold in 2008.
Athletics, gold, India. Those three words have never been used together. That is, until Neeraj Chopra, his hair kept in place by a bandana, threw the javelin. It soared, picked out by the blaze of lights at the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, through the warm and humid night, and plunged itself straight into the pages of history.
Chopra, the muscular 23-year-old from Haryana, had become the first track and field medallist from independent India, only the second gold medallist in India’s Olympic history after Abhinav Bindra’s gold in 2008.
It’s the kind of moment that deserved hysteria, a roaring stadium, and tears. What it got was an ice-cool Chopra lifting both his arms in the air, smiling nonchalantly as if he had done nothing more than what he was meant to do. Then he was running through the nearly empty stadium, the Indian flag draped on his shoulders, stopping each time he spotted someone from India — a few journalists, some volunteers, a handful of athletes and coaches from the Indian track contingent.
But mostly, he ran alone, his hair flying.
“It’s a good feeling,” Chopra said later, the gold around his neck, still smiling like it was a normal day in office. “Even if this weighed 10kg, it would feel light right now.”
He dedicated the win to Milkha Singh.
“We were in Portugal when I got news of Milkha Singh’s death (on June 18),” Chopra said. “I was very sad. I wanted to win a medal and go and meet him. But hopefully he is watching from above and he is happy. I want to dedicate my medal to him, and to all those athletes from India, like PT Usha, who missed out on medals by very small margins.”
The legendary Milkha Singh missed out on a medal by a tenth of a second at the 1960 Olympics in Rome in the 400m sprint, in one of the greatest races in the history of the sport, where both the gold and silver medallists broke the world record and Singh himself broke the Olympic record.
India had to wait 24 years till another athlete came close to a track and field medal at the Olympics. At the 1984 Los Angeles Games, PT Usha missed out on a medal in the 400m Hurdles by a hundredth of a second.
Then there was Neeraj Chopra, Tokyo 2020, August 7, 2021. He now has the improbable track record of having won a gold medal at every major event he has competed in — the 2016 World Junior Championships, where he first announced himself with a 86.48m throw, the junior world record; the 2017 Asian Championships, the 2018 Commonwealth and Asian Games.
In the last two years, he has endured an injury that ruled him out of most of the 2019 season after a surgical procedure on his throwing arm, the pandemic that cancelled out most of the 2020 athletics season and resulted in the Olympics being postponed, and a lead up to Tokyo where he had to plead with authorities to arrange for him to attend a few international competitions.
“After the pandemic started I was not getting to go to any competitions. I kept saying that I need to go and throw at international competitions. Finally I got a few just before the Olympics, and that helped,” Chopra said.
Come his night and all of that was forgotten.
“The only thing I thought about during the event is that anything is possible,” he said.
With his very first effort, he had thrown down the gauntlet, in the form of a spear — 87.03m — and he was leading the field of finalists. He would have won the gold with that throw (the silver medal went to Czech Republic’s Jakub Vadlejch at 86.67m) but he did one better with his second - 87.58m.
He didn’t even have to look at the javelin land to know he had done something special. He rose from his follow-through with his back to the field and roared, before raising his arms with a smile.
“When I released the second throw, I felt like it would be my personal best,” Chopra said. “Till I got to know the distance, I was sure it was my personal best. It was not the perfect throw, must have got too much height on it. But I was pretty sure I had got a medal. After that, it was on my mind that I will get the Olympic record – 90.57m. I think because of that, I overdid it. Went too fast on the approach. It was only on the last throw that I was stable again.”
Chopra’s next throw was only 76.79, his next two throws were disqualified and his final effort landed at 84.24m.
Before the last throw, the medal was already his, but he took it anyway just for fun and perhaps because he still believed he could break the Olympic record.
“I suppose I can work hard, break more records later,” he said sheepishly. “But right now maybe the Olympic gold is a bigger thing.”
For a nation that has never before won an Olympic medal in athletics, the sport that, in many ways, defines the Games, it was everything.