Not only was it India’s first ever medal in athletics, but it was also a performance that brought a country of over a billion people together.
The Tokyo Olympics that was held earlier this year was a memorable one for India. The Indian athletes delivered their best ever performance, resulting in the country’s highest ever medals tally at The Games. At the forefront of the monumental effort was a man who people knew very little about, playing a sport that no one hardly watched. This man scripted his own piece of history when he won the gold medal in the men’s javelin throw event. Not only was it India’s first ever medal in athletics, but it was also a performance that brought a country of over a billion people together.
Indian track and field athletes are no strangers to exiting Olympic arenas early, not to mention the storied near misses of Milkha Singh, PT Usha, and Anju George. Even those ‘almost-there’ stories are in short supply. We got tired of asking why a country with a population of over a billion people couldn’t produce a track and field medal.
Neeraj Chopra also left the stadium early on the day of his qualification for the men’s javelin finals. But he walked with the stride and demeanour of a man with unfinished business. With a monstrous first throw of 86.65 metres (the qualifying mark was 83.50 metres), he topped the qualification charts and became the first Indian to make the final of the men’s javelin event. As he walked out of the stadium, you could see a bounce, a slight swagger in his step, but there was no hint of arrogance in it, this was self-belief.
On the day of the final, he effortlessly slipped into the zone once more. It was quite an experience to watch him up close, in that trance of self-assured immersion. The moment he completed his first throw, 87.03 metres, excitement began to build. But, having witnessed victory slip away so many times in Tokyo, we held our breath. Furthermore, there was a man named Johannes Vetter in the mix, the German had seven 90+ metre throws in 2021 alone, and a personal best of 97.76 metres (2020).
The scoreboard flashed IND on top at the end of the first set of throws from the 12 finalists. Everything was new to us, and the nervous energy was palpable. Neeraj was competing, and we felt a telepathic connection with him. His second throw looked fantastic, with the javelin sailing into a flat and furious arc. For a split second, it appeared to be destined, on its way to a new Olympic record. It landed shorter than we expected at 87.58 metres, but he was still well clear of the field, with most others doing 85 metres or so.