Javelin winner Neeraj Chopra at the Tokyo Olympic Games (© Getty Images)
The final throw was taken and only then could Neeraj Chopra breathe a sigh of relief.
With a mark of 87.58m at the Tokyo Games, the 23-year-old had launched himself to sporting superstardom as he became India’s first ever Olympic champion in athletics.
It was a moment so monumental that 7 August will now be celebrated as National Javelin Day in his home country.
“It feels unbelievable,” Chopra said later. “This is our first Olympic medal for a very long time, and in athletics it is the first time we have gold, so it’s a proud moment for me and my country.”
But it was not the first time Chopra had made history for his nation.
Five years earlier, the rising javelin star had broken the five-year-old world U20 record in Bydgoszcz to win India’s first ever gold medal at the World U20 Championships. As the next generation gets ready to compete at the 2021 edition of the age group event in Nairobi, Kenya, from 17-22 August, Chopra hopes his performances have helped to inspire.
“I am feeling good that the AFI (Athletics Federation of India) is marking my achievement to be remembered in the years to come,” Chopra said, following the AFI’s National Javelin Day announcement. “I will be happier if my gold medal win inspires youngsters to take to athletics, especially javelin throw.”
Neeraj Chopra made history as the first Indian athlete to win an Olympic gold medal in athletics. Other stars to have achieved a similar feat for their nation include:
Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, 100m hurdles – Puerto Rico
In 2016, Camacho-Quinn was left heartbroken after she hit a hurdle and missed out on the Olympic final in Rio. Five years later she gained redemption in Tokyo as she clocked 12.37 to win 100m hurdles gold - Puerto Rico’s first Olympic title in athletics.
Caterine Ibarguen, triple jump – Colombia
After claiming silver at the 2012 Olympics in London, Ibarguen went one better in Rio four years later. Leaping 15.17m she added Olympic triple jump gold to her world title wins from 2013 and 2015 to gain Colombia’s first ever Olympics athletics win.
Kirani James, 400m – Grenada
Grenada has won three medals at the Olympic Games and they have all been claimed in athletics, and all by the same athlete. James won gold in 2012 in London and added silver from Rio in 2016 before completing the set with his bronze claimed in Tokyo.
Jefferson Perez, 20km race walk – Ecuador
Perez won Ecuador's first ever Olympic medal when he claimed the 20km race walk title at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. Twelve years later the three-time world champion doubled his nation’s Olympic medal tally by securing silver in Beijing.
Ghada Shouaa, heptathlon – Syria
One year after winning the world heptathlon title in Gothenburg, Shouaa became Syria’s first Olympic champion thanks to her win in Atlanta. Syrian athletes have claimed a total of four medals across all sports at the Games but Shouaa’s remains the only gold so far.
Venuste Niyongabo, 5000m – Burundi
Niyongabo had established himself was one of the world's top middle-distance runners in the early 1990s but then stepped up to the 5000m for the 1996 Olympics. In what was just his third race over the distance, he struck gold to win Burundi's first Olympic medal.
The impact has already been felt. Just like the spear he throws, Chopra’s profile has soared following his latest achievement. Prior to the Olympics, the Asian and Commonwealth champion had 143,000 followers on Instagram. Now he is the most followed track and field athlete in the world with an incredible 3.5 million.
“Still processing this feeling,” he wrote in his most recent post. “To all of India and beyond, thank you so much for your support and blessings that have helped me reach this stage.
"This moment will live with me forever.”
Chopra’s javelin journey started in 2011 when the 13-year-old son of farmers joined a local sports group to be active. “I was an overweight child, one who got picked on by my peers because of it,” he told Spikes. “That hurt my confidence, but as time went on, as I became stronger, fitter, I felt it return.
“One day at the stadium, I saw some others throwing the javelin so I tried it out. Within 10 days, I was throwing 40-45 metres and others started to tell me I had a natural talent for it.”
He never looked back and Chopra’s win at the 2016 World U20 Championships was a major milestone. “Up until then, no one in India really knew about the javelin,” he said. “But that sparked a change.”
World U20 gold to Tokyo triumph
Neeraj Chopra is one of 13 former world U20 champions to have won Olympic gold in Tokyo.
Mutaz Barshim, Qatar
Selemon Barega, Ethiopia
Joshua Cheptegei, Uganda
Michael Cherry, USA
Neeraj Chopra, India
Mondo Duplantis, Sweden
Lynna Irby, USA
Faith Kipyegon, Kenya
Shaunae Miller-Uibo, Bahamas
Michael Norman, USA
Pedro Pichardo, Portugal
Kaylin Whitney, USA
Briana Williams, Jamaica
Chopra, who was coached by Gary Calvert to his world U20 title and then teamed up with Klaus Bartonietz, went on to claim his Asian title in 2017 before Commonwealth and Asian Games gold in 2018. But then, while training for the 2019 World Athletics Championships, he was struck with injury which required surgery on his throwing arm. He returned in 2020 but then the world went into lockdown.
One year later, he announced his comeback with a national record-breaking throw of 88.07m in Patiala.
“In my years in the sport, there’s been a huge change in how the javelin and athletics in general is seen in India, and the result is that the competitions have not just a lot more quantity, but more quality,” explained Chopra, who was joined on the Indian team in Tokyo by Shivpal Singh.
“I see so much potential for Indians with the javelin. To succeed you need strength and speed, and Indian kids have that. I think, more and more, they'll see what we’re achieving and be inspired to pick up a javelin themselves.”
The next signs of this could come in Nairobi, where India is represented by national U20 champion Kunwer Ajai Raj Singh Rana and silver medallist Jay Kumar.
Jess Whittington for World Athletics