No Indian since Abhinav Bindra in 2008 has won an Individual Olympic gold medal. 13 years later, a young and promising athlete in Neeraj Chopra has a chance of creating history at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.
A first look at Neeraj Chopra and one would feel he is a throwback rock star. The long, flapping hair and tall frame makes him look like one.
But he is a javelin thrower. A world-class one. A prime medal hope for India at the Tokyo Olympics. There are aesthetics attached to him too. When he runs in with his javelin and then hurls it with all his might – all at one go – it is like poetry in motion.
The Tokyo Games will be his first Olympics. It could’ve been second and the Rio Olympics his first. In 2016, just before the Rio Games, he had hunted down the Olympic qualification mark with an 86.48m throw at the World U-20 Championships in Poland, but his throw came two weeks after the scheduled cut-off date.
“If I had thrown the same distance that I achieved in Poland, I would’ve won bronze at the Rio Olympics,” Neeraj reflects.
“Surely, I do feel sad that I couldn’t participate in Rio because, ultimately, it’s the Olympics – the biggest event for an athlete. It comes once every four years. This time it’s five. A lot of things change in four years. For a country, for people, for an athlete. Thankfully, this time I’ll be taking part.
“I know the country has lots of expectations from me. It’s justified too. But I don’t try and take the pressure of expectation. What I can do is train well, give my best, and make sure there isn’t anything left that later on I think ‘Ohh, I could’ve done that. In our country, everyone wants nothing less than gold. But there are other top athletes who are also going to participate in the Olympics. They are not coming to Tokyo to just make up numbers. Medal or not depends on a lot of factors. For me, consistency will matter. Consistency in my throws gives me confidence.”
Recently, at the Kuortane Grand Prix in Finland, Neeraj finished third with an 86.79m throw. The Kuortane event was the first in a long time where Neeraj experienced competing with the kind of “top athletes” he is going to face at the Olympics.
Hot favourite to win gold in Tokyo, Germany’s Johannes Vetter was present there. So was Trinidad’s Keshorn Walcott, gold medallist at 2012 London and bronze winner in Rio. Vetter won gold with a massive 93.59m throw. Walcott came in second with his season’s best of 89.12m.
Neeraj’s personal best has been 88.07m, which came earlier this year at the third leg of the Indian Grand Prix in Patiala. Both Vetter and Walcott have breached the coveted 90m mark in their careers. While Vetter’s personal best is 97.76m, which ranks him second on the overall list of best throws behind the legendary Jan Zelezny (98.48m) of Czech Republic, Walcott’s best is 90.16m.
Another German, Andreas Hofmann’s personal best is 92.06m. He will be coming to Tokyo as well. Two more Germans, Bernard Seifert (PB: 89.06m) and Julian Webber (88.29m) haven’t breached the 90m mark yet, but are ahead of Neeraj in terms of their best throws. Reigning world champion Anderson Peters (PB: 87.31m) of Grenada, Poland’s Marcin Krukowski (PB: 89.55m), Czech Republic’s Jakub Vadlejch (PB: 89.73m) will also prove to be Neeraj’s challengers.
“This group is the best ever the world has seen in the history of the sport. Now 6-7 throwers throw more than 88m. It’s not just me. But, I tend to give my best when there is competition. My body responds well to competition,” states Neeraj with a touch of confidence. “I can do better. My body is telling me that I can push further. Maybe, I will be able to cross the 90m mark this year.”
There is some relief for Neeraj, though. Defending Olympic champion, Germany’s Thomas Roehler (PB: 93.90m) has pulled out of the Tokyo Olympics due to a back injury, and 2019 World Championships silver medallist Magnus Kirt (PB: 90.61m) of Estonia has also withdrawn owing to a leg injury.
“My two years went waste. Due to the elbow injury and subsequent surgery, 2019 slipped away; then because of Covid, 2020 also got affected totally. I feel my throws would’ve improved further had these two years not gone waste and I could’ve got the chance to participate in more competitions.”
While competing, Neeraj uses two kinds of javelins – a Nordic javelin or a Nemeth. At the Olympics, what’s his preferred one going to be? “Nordic javelin is a hard javelin. I prefer Nordic… Nemeth can also be used. Actually, the choice depends a lot on external factors – like the wind on the given day. We (javelin throwers) select accordingly.”
The men’s javelin throw is scheduled to take place on August 4 and 7 at the Olympics.