The venue: Bydgoszcz, Poland. The scene: The U-20 Athletic World Championships.
The moment: An 18-year-old boy, spiked hair and lithe muscular form, runs in for his second javelin throw of the evening. He spikes it with all his might, and falls over just before the line with the momentum. He is the World no. 1. He is Indian. He is Neeraj Chopra. He knows it’s good. He raises his arms in jubilation moments later, aware of the fact that he has pipped his previous throw (79.66 mts), and perhaps even his own personal best from earlier in the year (82.23; also the national record). It is confirmed; his is the third world record of the games.
Neeraj Chopra’s throw of 86.48 becomes the first athletics world record ever held by an Indian at any level whatsoever. The Khandra village lad from Haryana’s Panipat has been threatening something special ever since he failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics after a back injury this year. He had broken the previous mark by almost two metres. And with it, came the gold medal. World Champion Neeraj Chopra wasn’t quite a boy anymore.
Chopra’s throw of 86.48 was the eighth longest of 2016 at any level. To put things into perspective, London 2012 gold medalist Keshorn Walcott’s winning mark was 84.58, and his best this year was 86.35. Unfortunately for Chopra, he had broken the Olympic qualifying mark (of 83) seven days too late. July 11th was the deadline. Today was July 18th – which means that Chopra, perhaps India’s best chance of an Olympic medal in Athletics, would have to wait four years for Tokyo 2020 to strut his stuff on the biggest stage.
The transition from juniors into a legion of men has always been tricky for Indian athletes. Chopra’s mark may already be an indicator of how, with age, he must be handled well to not suffer a dip of fortunes. If his coach Gary Calvert is to be believed, Chopra is a natural who was destined for great things as soon as he kept improving on his marks in the last one year. From 70.19m in 2014, he is now at 86.43 – a steady graph that shows his evolution into the big league.
The highest mark of the year so far has been by German thrower Thomas Rohler with 91.28 last month. He has three more marks in the top 8, confirming his status as medal favourite for the Olympics next month. German thrower Owe Hohn is the only thrower ever to break the 100m mark, when he threw 104.8 in Berlin in 1985. However, after the redesigning of the spears in 1986, the current mark of 98.48 is by Jan Zelezny (1996). If Chopra carries on the way we all expect him to, this 20-year-old mark will be in danger not too far into the future.
For now, though, Rio will miss Chopra more than Chopra misses Rio.