India has not won an Olympic medal in athletics since 1947. Although it has produced the occasional athlete who could compete amongst the best in the world, an Olympic medal in athletics has been elusive. However, there is a genuine belief among Indians that the drought could end.
Their hopes are riding on 23-year-old javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra. As 2016 World Junior Champion, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games champion, an Olympic medal would seem a natural progression for the best javelin thrower (and probably the most promising athlete) India has ever produced. His 88.07m throw in Patiala in March, which broke his own national record, has raised hopes. Qualifying for the final on his very first throw (86.65m) has further strengthened the belief back home.
How realistic are Chopra’s chances? The withdrawals of defending Olympic champion Thomas Rohler due to a back injury and World Championship silver medallist Magnus Kirt may have opened up the field a little.
Trinidad & Tobago's Keshorn Walcott and Poland's Marcin Krukowski had better throws than Chopra this year. But Walcott, former World Junior Champion and 2012 Olympic champion, couldn't reach the final. He managed only a best of 79.33m, way below the qualification mark of 83.50m and finished 7th in his group.
Krukowski followed suit. As the athlete with the second-longest throw this season (89.55m), much was expected of the Pole, who believed he could throw beyond 90. He threw a best of 74.65m in the qualification, finishing below India's Shivpal Singh, who recorded a 76.40m throw.
World champion Anderson Peters also failed to make any dent in Chopra's medal quest. The 23-year-old from Grenada recorded a best of 80.42m in the qualification and finished 6th in his group.
Here are Chopra's top opponents in the final.
This was the easiest choice. The German has recorded the seven best throws of the year - all over 90 metres. One of those throws was the third-longest throw ever at 96.29m. He's the only athlete to have consistently thrown over 90 metres since 2019. In September 2020, Vetter made the second-best throw of all time - 97.76. It was less than a metre away from Jan Zelezny’s world record of 98.48. With such incredible stats, Vetter is the clear favourite to win gold at Tokyo and maybe even break the world record while doing so.
However, he isn't coming into the tournament in the best form, managing a best of 86.25 and 86.48 in his last two meets before Tokyo. Vetter also finished below Chopra in the qualification with an 85.64m throw and may be troubled by the hot and humid conditions. But it may hardly be cause for alarm, as the 2017 World champion will back himself for his first Olympic gold at Tokyo. No one expects Neeraj to beat him unless conditions and luck favour him on the day.
Vetter’s top 5 throws of 2021
1. 96.29 – Chorzow (May)
2. 94.20 – Ostrava (May)
3. 93.59 – Kuortane (June)
4. 93.20 – Dessau (May)
5. 92.14 – Luzern (June)
A photo of the Asian Games 2018 javelin throw podium resurfaced after Pakistan's Arshad Nadeem topped his group in qualifying and made it to the final with an 85.16m throw. The photo is of gold medallist Chopra and Nadeem, who won bronze that year shaking hands, heavily loaded with symbolism for the two nations. The premature exit of some of the favourites has opened doors for Nadeem too. The 24-year-old has improved since 2018 and recorded a personal best of 86.38m in Mashhad in April this year. The tournament in Mashhad and the Tokyo Olympics are his only two competitive performances this year and since 2019. Qualification performances rarely signify what is to come in the finals but having managed mid-80 throws in both his performances this year, Nadeem too could keep Chopra on his toes.
Nadeem's best throws - 2021
1. 86.38 - Mashhad (April)
2. 85.16m - Tokyo (August)
Another German in the ranks, Weber is a former Junior European champion. The 26-year-old is among the world-class throwers Germany has produced in recent years, including Vetter and Rohler. Although not as proficient as the two, Weber featured in the final at Rio 2016 and finished eighth despite recording the third-best throw in the qualification round. He has a personal best of 88.29, which he recorded in 2016 and has been consistently hitting the mid-80s this year. Not considered a strong prospect before the Tokyo Olympics, Weber is now among those who can take advantage of the absence of Walcott, Krukowski and Rohler.
Weber's top 5 throws - 2021
84.95 - Luzern (June)
84.51 - Dessau (May)
84.41 - Tokyo (August)
83.04 - Halle (May)
82.65 - Madrid (June)
Czech Republic's Jakub Vadlejch may have peaked at the right time this year. In qualifying in Tokyo, he threw a season's best of 84.93m to earn direct qualification to the final. The 30-year-old had thrown a personal best of 89.73m in 2017 to win silver at the 2017 world championships, narrowly missing out on gold to Johannes Vetter. Vadlejch hasn't hit those same distances since, but the grandest of stages can bring the best out of athletes, and Vadlejch is someone to keep an eye on.
Vadlejch's top 5 throws of 2021
1. 84.93 – Tokyo (August)
2. 82.31 – Ostrava (May)
3. 82.04 – Zlin (June)
4. 80.85 – Gateshead (July)
5. 78.90 – Potchefstroom (March)
Chopra, who has the second-best throw of 2021 (88.07) among the finalists, is a clear favourite for one of the medals.
Chopra bettered Vetter in the qualifier, but qualification scores rarely signify how a final will pan out.
Chopra missed the 2019 season due to a shoulder injury. After competing in a highly competitive field at the 2018 Intercontinental Cup, he took part in the Kuortane Games in Finland in June. He finished third there, behind Vetter and Walcott, with a best throw of 86.79m.
In the run-up to Tokyo, the 23-year-old skipped the Diamond League meeting at Gateshead in July to reduce the risk of injury. In a press conference earlier this month, Chopra said he was focusing on his release technique which could aid in adding a few metres to his throws.
“My current focus is on ensuring that I do not throw the javelin too high. I had done this at the 2018 Asian Games. The problem was that the javelin used to veer to the left and would swerve out of the sector and reduce my throw’s distance. I am now working on getting my release angle right and ensuring I get the proper height,” he said.
“My coach says that all the power I put into my throw will be wasted if I do not release the javelin at the right angle. If I can get the angle right, then I can get a good distance in Tokyo,” he added.
The youngster's Olympic debut is India's best chance at an Athletics medal at the Olympics in decades.
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