How Neeraj Chopra made Tokyo gold happen before it happened

Neeraj Chopra’s gold medal-winning effort in the javelin throw final means India has finished the Tokyo Games with its best-ever Olympic medal haul of seven.

Neeraj Chopra created history by winning gold in the men's javelin at Tokyo Olympics on Saturday.

Neeraj Chopra sits in a quiet space, imagines he’s walking into the Tokyo Olympics Stadium. He gets ready, makes his approach run and lets the javelin soar. The 23-year-old practised the art of visualisation and played this scenario in his mind for months leading up to the Tokyo Olympics.  

His focus in these sessions was purely on technique and not the outcome. On August 7, the outcome was an Olympics gold medal — India’s first ever in track and field. 

Neeraj practised the calm, but the storm inside raged strong. He could barely sleep the night before the event. “I wanted to sleep early but couldn’t. I managed to sleep around 12:30 am, and I was wide awake by 5.30 am. I tried to sleep again because rest is essential for recovery, but I wasn’t able to. I had breakfast and tried again, but I was wide awake in an hour. Aisa lag raha tha ki mere shareer se aag nikal raha tha, aisa garam tha. Josh bahut tha (It felt like my body was radiating fire. I was very charged up).”

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There were challenges aplenty in the final stretch. For instance, getting the body and mind used to the seven-hour time difference between Tokyo and Sweden, where he trained for more than a month before the Olympics. Also, dope tests early in the morning did him no favours. 

“It took some time to get used to the time difference. I would sleep a little late, so, I was hoping to sleep longer in the mornings. But the doping control officers would show up at 5.45 am or 6 am for the past two days and whisk me away. Par maine haath jod ke request ki please 7 tareek ko itni jaldi mat aana (I requested them not to come this early on August 7),” he said with a smile. 

The josh (enthusiasm) he speaks about showed on the track when he was introduced for the final. He walked in with the swagger of an athlete in control. Neeraj's two warm-up throws sailed past the 80m mark. He was in his zone.

Once the competition started, he roared before each of his throws, turned to the Indian contingent in the stands and got them to cheer for him in unison, and made his speedy approach down the track before transferring every joule of energy in his body into the javelin. He was barely able to sit still. He continually shadow-practised after his throws. This energy flowed even before his last attempt, by which time he was already an Olympic champion. 

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Neeraj’s coach Klaus Bartonietz said he never wanted the athlete to feel the pressure of winning the gold. “You should not say I will win gold; it puts a lot of pressure. You should enjoy this competition, that is all. And then you do your best,” he told Neeraj before the competition. The German's last piece of advice to Neeraj was in Hindi: “maje karo (have fun).”

Klaus, a biomechanical expert, feels Neeraj’s biggest strength is athleticism and that sets him apart. “He is an all-round athlete who specialises in the javelin, but his body capacity is such that (he is good at) sprinting, jumping, and lifting. He was the fastest on the runway. He gains energy and then puts that into the javelin. When you are slow, it is hard to do that.”

 

Neeraj had given the world a glimpse of this athleticism in an Instagram video he posted on May 14. The clip titled “medicine ball throw” shows him holding a medicine ball over his head, bending his knees, and arching his back to almost form an inverted C. And then, in one swift motion, he explodes upwards and hurls the medicine ball. For years, such gravity-defying, back-bending moves are associated with the iconic Keanu Reeves from The Matrix movie. This real Neeraj move looked as impressive.

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While Neeraj is comparatively leaner and not as tall as his opponents, Klaus notes that his suppleness is a game-changer. “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.” 

Having harnessed all these striking physical attributes and mental fortitude for the Olympics, Neeraj basked in the glow of the gold on a memorable Tokyo night. 

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