A gold, a few pluses and many minuses

Neeraj Chopra provided the right impetus to Indian athletics at a time it seemed to have depended too much on hype in the media and social media rather than real top-class performances on the global stage.

Over the moon: Neeraj Chopra gave the Indians a lot to cheer about on the penultimate day of the Games. “It feels unbelievable. It is the first time India has won gold in athletics,” said Neeraj.   -  PTI

Many an outstanding Olympian of yesteryear had dreamed of an Indian track and field athlete getting an Olympic medal. The great Milkha Singh was one of them. He did not live to see Neeraj Chopra win it in Tokyo on August 7 as he passed away less than two months earlier following post-Covid-19 complications.

Chopra dedicated his gold medal in javelin to the legendary sprinter, who was the first Indian to finish fourth in Olympic athletics.

Like Milkha, many of us, and many other Olympians often talked about a medal for India in athletics in Olympics. No one mentioned gold medal! It was unimaginable. Gold looked out of reach when just a medal itself was difficult to imagine. Even making the final in an Olympics was considered an exceptional achievement for an Indian athlete.

READ: Neeraj Chopra's golden day

Post-Tokyo, Chopra has changed all that. His triumph, the result of a five-year preparation since taking the World junior title in Poland, braving a serious injury and surgery, and pushing ahead without adequate competitive exposure in the Olympic year, is indescribable. He has placed the benchmark well beyond the reach of all the other current Indian athletes, if not a large majority of the rest of the Asian athletes barring the Chinese.

In an Olympics where China managed two gold medals in athletics, and India and Qatar took one each, Asia’s collection was four gold, four silver and two bronze. Even Japan could not claim a gold despite home advantage, especially in racewalking where it has a high rating.

Months before the Olympics arrived, Chopra was projected as a possible medal contender on his Olympic debut. His 86.48m at the World junior championships in 2016 had come a little too late to get him an Olympic qualification for Rio.

In Tokyo, he did not come out of the blue to snatch a medal for India. He was listed as a candidate for a medal by most experts. American magazine Track and Field News placed him at the silver position in its predictions in April and July. British magazine Athletics Weekly put him at number three. Both predictably had German Johannes Vetter as the gold medal favourite. Vetter was ranked so high above the rest that almost no one thought it proper to discuss possibilities for the gold in javelin.

Up to June 29 this season, Vetter had a series of seven 90-metre throws (28 in his career from 2017 including throws within series), just one of 87m-plus. At the Gateshead Diamond League meeting in England, the 28-year-old German who won the 2017 World championships, ran into some trouble with the surface and the rains, ending with 85.25m, the first sign that he was, after all, human. Another 86.48m at Thum, Germany, was not very encouraging either.

However, Vetter gave no indication about his problems with the Tokyo track when he spoke to reporters on the eve of the event, except mentioning some technical issues, which he did not elaborate. It turned out that those issues related to the speed of the surface and his inability to employ an effective “block”. He struggled through the qualifying round (85.64m on his third and last throw), while Chopra topped with 86.65m.

In the final, Vetter could not respond to Chopra’s opening 87.03m, later stretched to 87.58. Vetter had 82.52m on first, took a tumble on the second, gesticulated towards the track, muttered a few words. Vetter could not make the cut for the last three rounds and finished ninth, a disappointing end to the most rousing build-up there could have been for an Olympics.

ALSO READ: U20 World Championships: Historic mixed relay bronze for India

"Tough competition. If you watch the throws again, you can see it's not the right surface for me. It's a good surface for all the runners, for all the nice world records and Olympic records on the track, but not for a javelin thrower like me. It really makes me sad,” Vetter told journalists as he exited.

"It's like driving a car (on) autopilot. You can't brake, and I have to brake to throw far. I was trying everything. I was trying in every throw and every warm-up throw to find the right technique for this surface."

On Chopra, the German said, “He is a really talented guy, always friendly, I am happy for him… he did a good job."

Chopra was understandably over the moon. “It feels unbelievable. It is the first time India has won gold in athletics, so I feel very good. We have just one [individual] gold in other sports,” he said.

A few others including Poland’s Marcin Krukowski, who was number two to Vetter in the world lists (89.55m) going into the Olympics and who could not make the final, and silver winner Jakub Vadlejch of the Czech Republic, also backed Vetter’s contention that it was a slippery and difficult track for the javelin throw.

Chopra, though he lost a year in 2019 due to an elbow injury and surgery, and who did not get into this year’s world rankings till June 22 since he did not have adequate number of events towards rankings, obviously is not a man bothered about reputations.

The 23-year-old Haryana youngster, who came through the junior competitions at home, had his sights set on a medal and knew he had to produce his best under the given conditions. Fortunately, he started the final well and extended his domination in the second round.

Chopra provided the right impetus to Indian athletics at a time it seemed to have depended too much on hype in the media and social media rather than real top-class performances on the global stage.

On the plus side, apart from the gold, Avinash Sable in the steeplechase and the men’s 4x400m relay team posted national records at the Olympics. In fact, the relay team clocked an Asian record of 3:00.25s while missing the final by a narrow margin.

India's Kamalpreet Kaur finished sixth in the discus throw final at the Tokyo Olympics.   -  AFP

 

Discus thrower Kamalpreet Kaur made the final and finished sixth, a significant feat for an Indian. But she was still down on her home performance of 66.59m in Patiala and threw 63.70m in the final, which was 30cm short of her qualification-round feat. On the positive side, she was not overawed by the occasion in her first Olympics.

The rest were well below their season bests, leave alone personal bests. Not unexpectedly, one would say. This is, in fact, almost a routine every four years.

The most disappointing was javelin thrower Annu Rani. Having had nine throws over 61 metres between 2019 and 2021, Rani was expected to make the final in Tokyo. Instead, she threw 54.04m in the qualification round, finishing 29th and last among those who recorded a valid throw. The 12th qualifier through to the final had 60.94m.

Among a large squad of racewalkers, Sandeep Kumar (23rd, 1:25:07) and Priyanka Goswami (17th, 1:32:36) did creditably in the 20km event. Their proximity to the early leaders, many of them well-known names in the world of racewalking, apparently provided the fans back home some cheer but it was evident they would fall back as the race progressed.

Dutee Chand who clocked a national record of 11.17s at home in the 100m clocked 11.54s in the heats to finish seventh out of eight sprinters. Despite all the build-up prior to the Olympics or World championships, she is yet to cause a stir at the global meets barring the World University Games.

M. P. Jabir, the 400m hurdler (season best 49.78s, Olympics heats 50.77s), long jumper M. Sreeshankar (SB 8.26m NR, Olympics qualification 7.69m, 25th), shot putter Tajinderpal Singh Toor (SB 21.49m NR, qualification 19.99m, 29th), javelin thrower Shivpal Singh (SB 81.63m, qualification 76.40m, 27th), 20km walker K. T. Irfan (1:34:41, 51st), 20km walker Rahul Rohila (1:32:06, 47th) and 50km walker Gurpreet Singh (did not finish) were the others in the men’s section who performed well below potential.

Among women, discus thrower Seema Punia, in her fourth Olympics, who made a dash from Minsk to Patiala to qualify for the Games just in time with a throw of 63.72m, could do 60.57m and finished 16th in the qualifying round.

READ: Neeraj Chopra's Olympic gold working magic on juniors

The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) and the Sports Authority of India (SAI), while basking in the glory of Chopra’s success, would do well to thoroughly examine what goes into the performances at home or abroad in the run-up to the Games and why everything seems to come apart at the quadrennial event time and again.

Tokyo saw three world records, 12 Olympic records, 28 area records and 151 national records.

Chopra's success has generated interest, but it would be foolish to imagine that it would bring about a sea change in Indian athletics. There is only meagre emerging talent notwithstanding the many ambitious schemes. The spectre of doping is omnipresent, and bluster alone will not change the trend of poor performances in championships that matter.