“Tears were flowing and I felt like my heart would burst!” These words were posted by a friend on social media when she stood to attention on hearing the national anthem played at the stadium in Tokyo while medals were awarded to the winners of the javelin throw in men’s category.
It was the moment of deliverance for a nation of one billion plus. Almost every edition of the Games till this one had turned out to be an occasion for collective shame as our athletes continued to return with little to show for their efforts in track and field events. The pain caused by the disappointment had become so acute that one had stopped hoping; what was the point in looking forward in anticipation if the end result was the same? Comparisons made with other countries - big and small, rich and poor - who managed to win medals effortlessly while we struggled made us wonder what was so lacking in us so as could not win even a single medal.
The miseries and bad memories have all been forgotten. All those years of yearning and decades of disappointments have receded to the background as the country shines in the glow of the gold medal won by Neeraj Chopra in javelin throw at Tokyo 2020. There have been outpourings of joy across the country and celebrations have begun in right earnest. Chopra has indeed done his nation proud and made his countrymen a happy bunch through this stellar achievement of finishing at the top in the biggest of all arenas.
Who is Chopra? Not surprisingly, very little is known of him as athletes do not get the media coverage that persons with lesser achievements are privileged to receive if their chosen event is cricket. Born in 1997 in Panipat district in Haryana, he finished his studies in DAV College, Chandigarh. He is presently a Subedar, a Junior Commissioned Officer, of Indian Army and assigned to Rajputana Rifles.
Chopra began his international career with an effort of 66.75 metres at the World Youth Championship held in Ukraine in 2013. In the Asian Championship held at Wuhan in 2014, he finished 9th with a distance 70.50m. Though he won the World Under-20 Games held at Poland in 2016 with a throw of 86.48m, he failed to qualify for Rio Olympics as this effort came after the cut off date. The gold medal Commonwealth Games in 2018 came with an effort of of 86.47 metres. He won the gold medal in Asian Games the same year with an effort of 88.06 metres, which was a new national mark. He was consistently clocking distances in excess of 86 metres during the last two years and sailed to the finals at Tokyo with a single throw of 86.65 metres. And then came the crowning glory when his throw of 87.58 metres was ahead of the next best by a distance of 0.91 metres in the final.
Though Neeraj was throwing the javelin consistently to distances in excess of 85 metres during the last two years, there was a distinct apprehension to consider him as a valid medal hope. What could be the reason for this? This could be on account of the two near misses suffered by Milkha Singh in 1960 and P T Usha in 1984, when they missed an Olympic medal on track by one hundredth of a second. While Milkha was acknowledged as one of the best quarter milers in the world at that time, Usha had raised hopes by her performances in the semis where she finished first in 400m hurdles. Hence it was a huge disappointment when neither of them found a place on the podium, despite clocking career best performances and creating records that stood for decades in India.
It would be unfair to say that Milkha and Usha were the only medal hopes for the country through these years. How can one forget Sriram Singh, the doughty half miler who finished in the seventh position in the finals at Montreal in 1976? Or Shivnath Singh, who decided to participate in the marathon for the first time in Montreal games (he had qualified for taking part in 10,000 metres race) and finished at 11th place? Anju Boby George became the first Indian to win a medal in World Athletics Championship when she bagged the third place in long jump at Paris in 2003 with a leap of 6.70 metres. Though this raised hopes of a podium finish at Athens Olympics in 2004, she could only finish at fifth position despite a career best effort of 6.83 metres.
But these odd examples apart, the experience has been that Indian athletes do not usually perform to their full potential at Olympics. We have the example of M Sreeshankar, a long jumper who was consistently clearing distances in the range of 8 metres plus, but failed to make the finals at Tokyo, finishing his attempts with a best leap of 7.62 metres. TC Yohannan created history at Tehran Asiad in 1974 by becoming the first Asian to clear 8 metres in long jump by leaping to 8.07 metres. But he got bogged down due to injuries subsequently and could only do 7.67 metres at Montreal, thus failing to make it to the finals. A performance matching his show at Tehran would have won him a medal as the third place on the podium went to a long jumper who clocked 8.02 metres.
It were the experiences of the past disappointments that made one guarded in expressing optimism when Chopra took the field this time. But he proved to a strong competitor and hardly showed any sign of nerves as he comfortably threw the javelin with the self assurance of a champion. His single attempt in the qualifying stage took him to finals while his first two throws in the finals carried the javelin to distances that others could not even come near to.
While congratulating Chopra, one should not forget to compliment the support team who ensured that he remained in peak physical and mental prowess in the run up to the event at Tokyo. His coach Uwe Hohn, himself a former champion who had thrown the javelin to distances exceeding 100m, and biomechanics expert Dr Klaus Bartnietz, who helped Chopra to come out of the elbow injury he suffered in 2018, deserve all accolades in this regard. Gary Calvert, who coached Chopra and helped him to move with ease into the 80m plus category in 2016 merits special mention as it was he who first polished this gem and brought out its sheen. The Sports Authority of India and the Athletic Federation of India who created the required infrastructure and provided necessary support to Chopra can feel justifiably proud that their efforts have borne fruit.
It was a surreal moment when Chopra ascended the podium with the tricolour in hand and “janagana mana” was played in the stadium. The chests of all Indians watching the event swelled with pride and there would be thousands like my friend who wept tears of joy. But more importantly it made all of us believe that winning a medal in track and field events was not beyond the realm of possibility. Hopefully, the dark days when the Indian athletes returned empty handed with their heads hung in shame will never happen again.
The torch lit by Chopra at Tokyo will be carried forward by a new generation of athletes unburdened by the baggage of the past. Let us hope that they will keep it alight and bring many more medals and glories to our motherland in the years to come.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)