Retracing Neeraj Chopra's golden day at Tokyo Olympics

At 9:42 pm JST, “Gold medallist and Olympic champion, India - Neeraj Chopra,” said the announcer as Neeraj, clad in all-blue overalls, stepped onto the top of the podium. He punched the air with both fists and roared in jubilation. He received his medal, touched his forehead to it and kissed it before wearing it.

Camaraderie: Neeraj Chopra with silver medallist Jakub Vadlejch and the bronze medal winner Vitezslav Vesely, both from the Czech Republic, during the medal ceremony.   -  Getty Images

Neeraj Chopra walked into the Tokyo Olympics stadium around 6:45 pm local time on August 7. The bandana-wearing, javelin-wielding 23-year-old was only a few throws away from engraving his name in India’s history.

His first two practice throws were a breeze as they sailed past the 80m mark comfortably. Neeraj had entered the final with an 86.65m throw in qualification, from his first attempt.

Only three men had thrown the javelin further than Neeraj in the build-up to the Olympics — Johannes Vetter, Marcin Krukowski and Keshorn Walcott. Of the three, only Vetter made it past the qualification stage.

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

In the final, the Indian had to brace up for the German challenge from Vetter and Julian Weber and keep an eye on the Czech Republic duo of Vitezslav Vesely and Jakub Vadlejch. All four had better personal bests than Neeraj’s 88.07m.

As the athletes headed indoors after the initial warm up, news floated in from the Makuhari Messe Hall B -- some 42kms away -- that Bajrang Punia had won India’s sixth medal of the Games, beating Daulet Niyazbekov in the men’s 65kg bronze play-off in wrestling.

Neeraj returned to the track shortly after the men’s 4x100m final where Italy had run past the favourites to clinch a historic gold.

Final

He walked in with a disarming smile, focused on the task ahead.

But he dropped his javelin as he readied himself for his first attempt and there was a collective murmur among the thin Indian contingent. His first throw, however, put all at ease – the javelin flew high to register an 87.03m throw.

The focus shifted to Vetter, the title-favourite and the world leader who had managed a massive 96.29m throw in May. His run-up ahead of his first throw was initially disturbed by the ongoing 10,000m final and his effort landed on the 82.52m mark.

At 8:16 pm, the spotlight was again on the boy from Panipat as he strode down the track for his second attempt. He arched his back low enough for one end of the javelin to nearly scrape the ground and then exploded in one fluid motion, with his entire body’s energy transferred into that metal stick. He landed on his knees and turned his back to the still-traveling javelin to face the Indian contingent in the stands. His hands were raised in celebration as if to indicate that he had done it. The javelin soared high into the night sky and landed 87.58m away from him.

"I thought I had gotten my personal best. But it’s okay. The main thing was to become an Olympic champion and I’ve done that,” Neeraj later said.

It was to be the throw of success — a throw which brought India its second individual Olympic gold medal after Abhinav Bindra’s win in Beijing 2008.

The stadium speakers were blaring Bob Sinclair’s iconic “Rock this party (Everybody Dance Now)”, and the party had started in Neeraj’s village.

Back in Tokyo, Neeraj has four throws remaining. Vetter’s night, however, soon turned into misery as he rolled over in his second throw after slipping right before the launch. It was the beginning of the end of his Olympics campaign, Vetter failed his third throw and paved the way for Neeraj to seize the mantle. “Chopra leading the way,” the stadium announcer rightly said.

The Indian managed a 76.79m throw in his third and failed his next two throws. But it was of little consequence as none of the other throwers came within threatening distance. Vadlejch was the only one who got past the 86m barrier as he claimed a season’s best of 86.67m in his fifth attempt.

Neeraj, already assured of a medal, could barely sit still and shadow practised on the far side and did a few short run-ups to keep himself charged up. He had practised visualisation ahead of the Olympics to ease out the stress at the event. But none of that could have prepared him for this setting — he was within touching distance of that gold medal. The youngest thrower in the field was one throw away from bagging the biggest prize.

READ: How Neeraj Chopra made Tokyo gold happen before it happened

The last round of throws did little to alter the medal standings and Neeraj’s effort of 84.2m was of little consequence.

The Indians in the stadium were in a state of trance, including the journalists. The Indian scribes could no longer be the dispassionate observers of events. They, too, joined in as Neeraj went on a lap of honour, running on the track with the tricolour fluttering behind him. Every Indian out there was a fan, admirer, and a maniac — yelling, clapping, shedding tears of joy – all too eager to tell the world that we now had our own Olympic track and field champion.

At 9:42 pm JST, “Gold medallist and Olympic champion, India - Neeraj Chopra,” said the announcer as Neeraj, clad in all-blue overalls, stepped onto the top of the podium. He punched the air with both fists and roared in jubilation. He received his medal, touched his forehead to it and kissed it before wearing it. The official — Adille Sumariwalla (the president of the Athletics Federation of India) – handing over the mementos could hardly hide his emotions.

And then, for the first time in three editions of the Games, the Indian national flag was hoisted. “All the hard work, all the injuries, everything that’s happened over the last five years, all the hardships went away before this (the Indian national anthem playing). I felt that all the hardships were worth it. It felt like current was passing through my body when the national anthem was played. I didn’t want to, but I felt I was going to cry but the tears didn't come,” Neeraj said.

Proud moment: Neeraj with his parents Satish Kumar and Saroj Devi during a press conference in New Delhi.   -  Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

 

As the shutterbugs got cracking, the genial Neeraj locked fingers with his Czech counterparts and lifted their hands in celebration. It was a touching gesture, showing the world again that sport, after all, is a great agency of unity.

In the mixed zone, Neeraj looked dazed. But he patiently answered each question in detail and dedicated his medal to the iconic sprinter Milkha Singh, who had passed away earlier this year. The mixed zone interview was cut short as an official came with a congratulatory message from the Prime Minister.

But we had company in German biomechanical expert Klaus Bartonietz, who has been working with Neeraj for the last two years. “There are javelin throwers who are stronger but don’t throw as far. You need energy and then apply that to the javelin; you must have a strong block. You need to be like a bent bow, like a dhanush. You need to use body elasticity in your throws and not just brutal power,” he said, before adding that the last thing he told Neeraj was “Majje karo (have fun!)”.

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We would interact with Neeraj again half an hour later in the press conference. Flanked by Vadlejch and Vesely, Neeraj was grinning, looking thrilled as a child.

As the two Czech throwers fielded questions, Neeraj looked down and smiled. Perhaps it was finally sinking in.

As he was whisked away for the routine dope testing, a member of the Netherlands coaching staff casually quipped, “Wonder which IPL team is going to sign him as a bowler.”

Meanwhile, the rain gods in Japan had let loose — Christmas had come early as the raindrops looked like snowfall under the stadium lights. India, around 6,000km away, was basking in its new-found glory and champion.