Will India ever win an Olympic medal in athletics?
That question had been left lingering through decades, and many of us were resigned to our fate that we may never see an Indian athlete climb the podium in the quadrennial games.
Neeraj Chopra found more than an answer to that question in Tokyo on Saturday. He did not just win a medal; he took the gold! Billion-plus prayers were answered as Chopra opened his challenge to the German favourite, Johannes Vetter, with an 87.03m throw. He then bettered it with 87.58 on his second, and the gold was no longer a dream for India.
Vetter had problems adjusting to the pace and grip on a surface that was praised by the sprinters. It had seen some fabulous timings and upset results over the past nine days. However, a high-voltage contest between the German and the Indian never materialized.
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There was no one in the rest of the field who could pose a threat to Chopra after round one. Some of the best did not even enter the Olympics because of injuries. A few others who were front-runners for the season had crashed out in the qualification round.
“It feels unbelievable,” Chopra was quoted as saying in Tokyo after the event. It is unbelievable for the rest of us who watched with growing expectations as the final day’s athletics action at the Olympic stadium unfolded.
Ever since he won the World junior championships title in Bydgoszcz, Poland, in 2016, with a world under-20 record of 86.48m, Chopra was touted as a future Olympic medallist. Notwithstanding a serious injury in 2019 and loss of opportunities to compete because of it, he remained high on the world lists, his best coming this year at home with an 88.07m throw.
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Little could anyone have imagined that on his Olympic debut, he would win the gold medal to end the debate about Indian athletes being world-class at home and, barring a handful of exceptions, also-rans at the global level.
As he rightly observed in Tokyo, India rarely wins gold in the Olympics. Since Abhinav Bindra opened the golden tally in Beijing in 2008, the top honour had been elusive through two editions. It sent India down in the medals standings, which the public looks at and the media focus on.
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Despite tall promises, at least over the past two decades, only 10 Indian track and field athletes had qualified for the finals in Olympic Games till this edition. The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) for once did everything to support Chopra with handsome contributions from the Government and the Inspire Institute of Sports. Had he failed, we would have gone back to the same old story of qualification to the Olympics being the only target for our athletes, federation, the authorities and the fans.
The Haryana youngster, an Armyman, has given new life to Indian athletics, which looked saggy all over again despite a couple of encouraging performances on previous days in Tokyo. Hopefully, Chopra’s phenomenal success should generate fresh interest in the sport in the years ahead, prompting the media and the public to spare more attention towards it.