The enormous hype surrounding Indian javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra’s Olympic debut in Tokyo stems from a reason beyond the incredible consistency that the 23-year-old Panipat lad has shown in the past few years.
It has more to do with the nation’s desperation for success in track and field - an event where India have never won a medal in their Olympic history since independence.
India’s only two Olympic medals had come at the Paris Olympics 1900, during the pre-independence era, when Norman Pritchard had clinched two silver in the men’s 200 meters and men’s 200 metres hurdles events.
Apart from the onus of fetching India their first Olympic medal in athletics, Neeraj Chopra also comes to Tokyo with the distant possibility of winning only the second individual Olympic gold medal for India, since Abhinav Bindra did at the Beijing Olympics 2008.
It was an amazing experience meeting @Abhinav_Bindra Sir at his @abhinavbindratp center.He has always been an inspiration for every indian Athlete dreaming of Olympics. Thank you for your words of motivation.जय हिंद pic.twitter.com/gXFBtsAFae— Neeraj Chopra (@Neeraj_chopra1) December 11, 2018
While it seems surprising that the nation is pegging its Olympic gold hopes on an inexperienced first-timer, despite veterans like PV Sindhu, MC Mary Kom, Vinesh Phogat and few others also in the fray for Olympic glory, Neeraj Chopra’s ascent to the top is no less than a fairytale.
Making and breaking records
When the Haryana-born Neeraj Chopra had equalled the Indian national record to win the gold medal at the 2016 South Asian Games with an 82.23m throw, not many took notice. That changed when Chopra created a new world junior record to win the 2016 IAAF World U20 Championships with a throw of 86.48m.
Chopra had turned into a promising talent from a kid with potential now, and he wasn’t stopping at anything. He bagged yet another gold at the 2017 Asian Athletic Championships, with an 85.23m throw. Come 2018, the stakes were higher with the Commonwealth Games, the IAAF Diamond League and the Asian Games providing the biggest of stages.
Chopra clinched the gold medal at CWG with a season-best throw of 86.57m and set a new national record to win the gold in the Asian Games with a throw of 88.06 m. Though he came fourth in the Diamond League, he managed to turn heads with his throw of 87.43m in Doha.
Did my personal best throw today of 87.43 m and also a new Indian National record at DOHA diamond league💎2018 #DiamondLeague #RoadToTheFinal #nike #javelin #gatorade pic.twitter.com/FQ1Tf3pn7J— Neeraj Chopra (@Neeraj_chopra1) May 4, 2018
A star was born, with the promise to go all the way. However, just when India had started to get excited a major shoulder injury in 2019 forced him to miss the entire season. Chopra quelled all fears of being rusty upon return when he qualified for Tokyo Olympics in his first event since the injury in 2020.
Chopra’s return to regular competition was further extended by the COVID pandemic that enforced a year-long global lockdown, which meant he could compete in only a few competitions. However, in the little that he has participated in, Chopra set a new national record at Indian GP with an 88.07m throw and won a gold medal in Portugal with an 83.18m throw.
Neeraj Chopra’s medal chances in Tokyo Olympics
Chopra’s chances of an Olympic medal have been significantly boosted by the absence of Germany’s defending Olympic champion Thomas Roehler and Estonia’s Magnus Kirt, the 2019 IAAF World Championships silver medallist. Both the athletes had to pull out owing to injuries.
However, the favourite to win the gold medal in javelin throw at Tokyo is German world no.1 Johannes Vetter. While Chopra has been consistently throwing at the higher 80s, Vetter’s average has been over 90s. In Finland’s Kourtane Games, where Chopra finished third with an 86.79m throw, the German won the gold with a whopping 93.59m throw.
New meeting-record with another big throw to 93,59m! Kiitos @kuortanegames 🇫🇮🚀 #VetterWurf #training #athlete #throwing #javelin #speerwurf #trackandfield #gym #javelinthrow #leichtathletik #spitzensportbundeswehr #fit #athletics #roadtotokyo #fitnes… https://t.co/trS8O9v81L pic.twitter.com/FLyZXnzLCN— Johannes Vetter (@jojo_javelin) June 26, 2021
Ranked fourth in the World Athletics rankings, Chopra (personal best of 88.07m) has second-ranked Marcin Krukowski (personal best of 89.55m) of Poland and world no. 3 Keshorn Walcott (personal best of (90.16m) from Trinidad & Tobago's ahead of him.
While Vetter is a cut above the rest, the remainder of the field is pretty much in Chopra’s range with his competitors at the Tokyo Olympics likely to be 2014 World Junior Champion Gatis Čakss (personal best of 87.57m) and Macedonia’s Andrian Mardare (personal best of 86.66m), apart from Krukowski and Walcott.
A javelin thrower’s personal best, however, doesn’t reflect their Olympic medal chances. The London Olympics 2012 was won by Walcott who threw only 84.58 metres, while the Rio Olympics was won by Roehler, who threw 90.30 metres.
Neeraj Chopra will be targeting to meet a distance of 90 metres, which is more than likely to fetch him a medal and create history for India in the track and field event.
Featured Image: Twitter/ Neeraj Chopra