Neeraj Chopra’s alarm went off at 5:15 am on Wednesday. The 23-year-old javelin thrower does not usually wake up this early to compete. But when he stepped onto the track at the Tokyo Olympic Stadium, he had one goal – to let that javelin soar and qualify for the final.
Twenty strides, a leap, and a grunt later, he booked his spot in the javelin throw final of the Tokyo Olympics. Neeraj unleashed his best in his first attempt in Group A to top the qualification round with a high of 86.65m. He comfortably went past the automatic qualification mark of 83.50m, and that was it. Done in about 12 seconds.
“The idea was to do well in warm-up throws and then qualify in the first throw itself,” he said. “My first warm-up throw was not good, but the next one felt better. There was a slightly different feeling in my throws, but I knew that I would be able to hit the mark today,” he said and paused to watch Johannes Vetter’s final throw. Germany's Vetter, the favourite for the gold medal, threw a best of 85.64m. He did not get past the automatic qualifying mark in his first two throws (82.04m and 82.08m).
“I was wondering what the problem was when I saw Vetter, who’s a world-class thrower, struggling a bit,” said Neeraj. Both throwers felt the weather conditions added an extra element of difficulty.
Neeraj said he was focusing on releasing his javelin at a flatter angle to get a proper flight.
“I don’t understand all the technical nuances, but I was told that when the stadium is closed (has a roof), you shouldn’t give too much height as the wind creates issues. There’s no wind around the track, but there’s wind above and that causes a problem. That’s why I tried to throw it flat, and it clicked today.”
He was pleased with his release angle and follow through – the two key ingredients for a powerful throw. “My coach told me this morning that I need to have a follow-through on my throws. In warm-ups, my body was going sideways after throwing. That was diluting my power. That’s why my coach asked me to follow the angle of the javelin,” he said.
Sporting a fresh haircut, Neeraj also shared why he cut his flowing, long hair before the Olympics. “I had gone to Switzerland but did not compete because I felt I had not recovered well enough and did not want to take a risk before the Olympics. So, I went and got a haircut there. I still felt it was too long and cut my hair again in Sweden,” he said with a grin.
“I liked my long hair, and it will always grow back, but the Olympics will come again only three years later. Having longer hair meant I was sweating more, and it kept falling on my face. I had to focus more on my hair and how to manage it. I cut it off because I did not want my game to be affected by it.”
Neeraj topped the qualification, but his compatriot Shivpal Singh threw a best of 76.40m (Group B) and did not make it to the final. Arshad Nadeem threw 85.16m in Group B and became the first Pakistan athlete to reach a track and field final.
In a field of celebrated throwers, the 2012 gold medallist and 2016 silver medallist Keshorn Walcott and world champion Anderson Peters failed to make it to the final in a qualification round that threw up some unusually low distances.
The final will be held on August 7.
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