India’s long and agonising wait for a first Olympic athletics gold medal ended on Saturday when Neeraj Chopra, the son of a farmer, won the men’s javelin at the Tokyo Games.
It took just one throw on a balmy Tokyo night from the 22-year-old to start the world’s second-most populous country dreaming of an end to the years of pain.
His javelin flew into the bright lights of the stadium and landed after covering a distance of 87.03 metres – enough to give him the lead.
Brimming with confidence, Chopra sent his second attempt even further to 87.58m, cementing his position and sending 1.35 billion people back home into delirious joy.
“In the qualification round I threw very well so I knew I could do better in the final,” a beaming Chopra said. “I didn’t know it would be gold.”
While India is credited with Norman Pritchard’s hurdles silver medals from 1900 before it gained independence from Britain, the country considered itself never to have won an athletics medal at an Olympics before Saturday.
Before Chopra, India only had one individual Olympic gold medal winner in Abhinav Bindra, who won the 10-metre air rifle event at the 2008 Beijing Games.
Chopra, who hails from the northern Indian state of Haryana, was an overweight 12-year-old boy who was persistently persuaded by his family members to take up sports – possibly to help him shed a few pounds.
He ultimately gave in and began training at the Shivaji Stadium in Panipat and it was not until he saw a few senior athletes throwing javelins at the stadium that he decided to put his arm and shoulder into the sport.
Chopra went on to win the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games gold in 2018 before an injury to his throwing arm and the COVID-19 pandemic kept him sidelined for nearly two years.
But he used the time to iron out chinks in his technique, qualifying for Tokyo with a throw of 87.86m last year and posting a personal best of 88.07 in March this year.
The mop-haired former world junior champion was worried about the lack of competition leading into Tokyo but it did not ultimately matter.
Accolades and a lot of cash awards – the university where he is doing his graduation was one of the first to announce a prize purse – will pour in for Chopra over the next few weeks.
But despite the highs of the night, it was another below-par Olympic outing for his country, who finished with a single gold, two silver and four bronze medals in Tokyo.
Cricket dwarfs every other sport in India but Chopra, with his Bollywood looks and shiny new medal, will walk into the night dreaming that he could be the face of change.