Neeraj Chopra’s javelin performance in Tokyo didn’t just bring with it a gold medal, it has been a real catalyst for change in athletics across India, as Karunya Keshav explains
Before Neeraj Chopra won gold for India in the javelin at the Tokyo Olympics, he was an overweight teen with a healthy streak of mischief. His village in north India had few playgrounds and little awareness of any sports other than a traditional form of wrestling and kabaddi.
So, to shed some kilos, the boy, the pampered eldest child in a joint family of 17, was sent off to the closest gym in a town 6km away. That resulted in a serendipitous introduction to javelin – and changed the course of the sport in the country.
In the 10 years since, the javelin throw, once anonymous and mostly disregarded, has become a shining light of Indian athletics. Chopra has set and broken his own national records, set the world junior record when he became India’s first gold medallist at the World Under-20 Championships and won gold at the Commonwealth and Asian Games.
After the Olympics, he commanded endorsement deals and social media followings of a level only enjoyed by India’s top cricketers and movie stars. It doesn’t hurt that he’s likeable, authentic and has great hair. In a cricket-mad country, his popularity is a breakthrough.
Chopra has changed how India sees the javelin throw – and athletics. Vitally, he’s changed how Indian athletes see themselves.
Chopra is only the second individual Olympic gold medallist for independent India – and the only one in athletics. Before him, the country’s best performances in track and field were two fourth-place finishes: Milkha Singh in the 400m (1960) and PT Usha in the 400m hurdles (1984).
The duo’s near-misses are taught in schools and dramatised in pop culture; they are national icons, seen as exceptions to decades of athletics disappointment and mediocrity in a country of billions.
When Chopra won, he changed that script. Usha was emotional. “Realised my unfinished dream today after 37 years. Thank you my son,” she tweeted. Singh had died from complications of COVID two months earlier.
“While winning a medal in any sport is great, a country is believed to have reached somewhere when you get a medal in athletics,” explains Adille Sumariwalla, president of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) and an Olympian at Moscow 1980. “A lot of our athletes came very, very close [before]. So many fourth places, fifth, sixth.
“Neeraj has broken that glass ceiling and he has shown Indians that ‘yes, we can’ – ‘yes, we can also win, we are in no way inferior to anyone else’. That mental block has gone. And therefore, I think we will now be looking at a new set of athletes in how they think – and their confidence.”
“The impact your victory will create on promoting your sport amongst the country’s youth is immeasurable,” Abhinav Bindra, the only other Indian with an individual gold (10m air rifle, Beijing 2008), said in an open letter to Chopra. “You have crossed the first barrier; the gates are now firmly open. Budding Olympians will now look up to you as they set out to fulfil their dreams of bringing glory to the nation.”
But despite what history might suggest, Chopra’s medal was no accident. While his early success was down to raw talent, he was quickly embraced by the system. At the elite level, his immense skill benefitted from a public-private partnership just as it was coming together to improve India’s dismal record in world events.
In 2014, the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports started the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), wherein medal prospects are guaranteed support through customised programmes and a monthly allowance. This is in addition to annual funding that federations get. Alongside this, private bodies, many of them not-for-profit, have come up to address any inefficiencies of government and fill the gaps.
In Chopra’s case, he trained with AFI’s national javelin coach, the late Gary Calvert, and broke the junior record in 2016. Since that year, he has been supported by JSW Sports, a private body, and has been using their world-class training and rehab facilities at the Inspire Institute of Sport.
He became a TOPS athlete in 2018. According to AFI, the government spent around INR 7crore (approximately £70,000) on him in the Olympics cycle, including to hire biomechanics expert Klaus Bartoneitz as coach and support his training abroad.
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“This is a big moment for Indian sport. It could be the pathway to change,” says Manisha Malhotra, head of sports excellence and scouting at JSW Sports. “It’s a good example of understanding that each athlete has individual needs, and tailor-making plans in a more individualistic way rather than a one-size-fits-all.”
Of course, the gold took luck, too: “He was coming back from injury (he had surgery on his throwing arm for an elbow problem),” says Malhotra. “He’s a big beneficiary of this COVID delay. It gave him a good year to get back to the form he was in before the surgery. There’s been a lot of work, especially on his technique, on becoming a more efficient thrower and getting stronger.”
In all, India won seven medals at Tokyo 2020 – their best ever haul. Soon after, they won 19 in the Paralympics, including eight in athletics. In the World Under-20 Championships in Nairobi, Shaili Singh missed the gold in women’s long jump by a centimetre. Amit Khatri’s silver was India’s first at a Worlds in a race walk event, while the mixed 4x400m team won bronze. At the Olympics, the 4x400m men’s relay team didn’t make the cut for the final, but set an Asian record time of 3:00:25.
Beyond Chopra, it is performances like these that AFI are excited about.
Keen that the elite successes translate to systemic changes in the grass roots, AFI quickly declared August 7 as ‘Javelin Day’, promising to hold competitions in every state to mark the anniversary of Chopra’s win. This is in addition to the Open Javelin Throw meets happening since 2018.
“It is the bench strength that pushes the No.1,” says Sumariwalla. “Today 10 people are throwing over 80m, which is why Neeraj is throwing 88m.”
For the past few years, AFI have been focussing on select sports, and they reiterated an intent to prioritise 400m, throws, long jump, triple jump and race-walking. This will involve holding individual competitions for these events, improving infrastructure, and hiring foreign support staff.
“We are not going after 50 events – we are not going to spend time on an event, say, like pole vault. We should focus on events where we are good,” insists Sumariwalla.
AFI also announced a decision to “redesign and strengthen [the] junior programme to be able to build on the gains of Neeraj Chopra’s Olympic Games gold medal” and the U20 Championships. Until now, AFI have propped up the National Inter-District Junior Athletics Meet, which had its 18th edition in 2021, as the “world’s largest talent search programme” and “the largest grassroots programme in the world”.
READ MORE: How Neeraj Chopra won Olympic gold
They credit it for throwing up some of India’s biggest sports stars, including Chopra, and sprinters Hima Das and Dutee Chand. Now, alongside this, they plan to have out-of-competition scouting, to reach talent in more remote villages, indigenous communities and untapped centres. Coaches and technical officials needed for this ambitious plan are being developed.
A whirlwind seven weeks after his medal, Chopra finally went home for well-earned rest. Three weeks later he was back at training. The clocks are already counting down to Paris 2024.
» This article first appeared in the October issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here