India have been on a roll since young javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra brought the ultimate glory of the Olympic Games - the gold - home. It was India's second individual Olympic gold and the historic first in athletics.
On August 7, a day before the curtain was drawn on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, when a valiant Neeraj Chopra hurled his spear to 87.58m, it brought an end to India's long, tireless wait of 121 years. The young boy has written a remarkable new chapter in the history of Indian sports. For the first time in the history of the Olympic Games, an Indian athlete won gold in a track and field event.
Back home Chopra was met with deserved adulation on landing at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. He was mobbed by people from all walks of life; everyone wants to share the screen with him. An incredible situation for an athlete in India who does not have any connection with cricket, still by far the country's most popular sport.
No doubt, his lone gold at Tokyo weighed the weight of 1.3 billion. So much so that attending one after another welcome ceremony led him to fatigue. But that should be the case when you are an Olympic gold medallist in athletics in a medal deprived nation.
India's only Worlds medallist long jumper Anju Bobby George did not mince her words to claim Chopra's men's javelin throw gold at Tokyo 2020 is India's best-ever triumph across all sports.
But how did this journey start which craved a place in the brightest corner of Indian sports history?
Talking about Neeraj Chopra's overwhelming success at the recently concluded Olympics, his coach Dr Klaus Bartonietz, a 73-year-old biomechanical expert, was all praise of the support his mentee got in India.
"The support Chopra has got from the government and sponsors has been very important. Also it is not only me. When he broke the junior world record there was coach Gary Calvert, and then Uwe (Hohn) coached him when he won the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. Also there are people we don’t know. The first teacher in school or the coach who first asked him to throw. He or she must be feeling very proud now," said the German.
As humble as he could have been, Bartonietz wanted to give credit to every stakeholder that played a role in Chopra's success story.
Soon after Chopra won the athletics event, a video went viral that showed him neatly and respectfully folding the tricolour after his gold medal-winning performance, even pausing his celebration for that. It earned him acclamation from netizens, with many comparing his action with that of the Indian soldiers.
Behind his mindboggling achievement at Tokyo's Olympic Stadium, the Indian Army played a great role indeed.
In 2015, a scouting team from the vaunted Rajputana Rifles of the Indian Army arrived at the Tau Devi Lal sports complex in Panchkula, Haryana, in search of a future Olympic medallist. Chopra was then just 17. His herculean body had just started taking shape. At the foothill of the Shivalik range, he was hurling the javelin to a distance of over 70 metres, a mark which was considered fine for someone who won the gold at the National Junior Athletics Championships in 2012 with a throw of 68.40m, then a national record.
It has to be told that Chopra won the junior national laurel without any aid from a specialised coach. His sole aid was videos of Czech javelin throw champion Jan Zelezny. He started copying his style. And since 2014, he started throwing 70m regularly.
In 2015, he broke the then-junior world record, throwing 81.04 metres at the All India Inter-University Athletics meet. Incidentally, this was also the first 80m throw of his career.
Already under the watch of the Army, the scouting team of the Rajputana Rifles recommended Neeraj Chopra for his enrolment in its regiment on sports quota.
It was in July 2016 soon after Chopra became the first Indian athlete to win the World Athletics U20 Championships gold in Bydgoszcz, Poland, with a junior world record throw of 86.48m, the Indian Army's regimental scouting team rushed to Khandra village of Panipat district in Haryana with a lucrative offer of Naib Subedar post for the youngster. The Army officials spent the day with Chopra's parents and assured them of the Army’s support in his quest to become a decorated track and field athlete.
Upon his return to New Delhi, when the 18-year-old was felicitated by the Indian Army and officially recruited as a Naib Subedar, a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) post that takes around 20 years for a soldier to attain, to the Rajputana Rifles, one of the Army’s oldest rifle regiments, a triumphant Chopra told the Commandant of the Rajputana Rifles regimental centre, “Sir, I will get you the Olympic gold medal."
"I feel the Army's discipline is very important. An athlete is disciplined too but, in the Army, it's on another level."
This event marked an epoch in Chopra's career. After joining the Army on sports quota, which does not require a sportsperson to render physical service to his regiment as promotions depend on performances, Chopra, as was promised, was enlisted to the Mission Olympic Wing, an army initiative mooted in 2001 to identify and train promising sportspersons in 11 disciplines, for his training at the Army Sports Institute in Pune, the Indian Army's designated sports training centre.
Chopra was provided with a special diet, a dedicated coach and a physio.
He was then sent to the national camp at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala, where he was, for the first time, coached by a javelin throw coach, Naib Subedar Kashinath Naik, a 2010 Commonwealth Games bronze medallist.
However, after missing the 2016 Rio Olympics berth by a whisker for which he had travelled four countries within 20 days, Chopra had put away the disappointment to win the youth Worlds gold, his first international feat, in Poland to create a buzz in India shortly after the Games were closed.
Watching him closely his first foreign coach Gary Calvert had devised a plan to make Chopra a 90m javelin thrower. But as his contract was not extended, Chopra's form declined. A depressing performance at the 2017 World Athletics Championships in London saw him landing in Offenburg to train under the experienced German Werner Daniels, who guided him to the CWG gold in Australia. But for some inexplicable reasons, the Athletics Federation of India did away with Daniels.
He was eventually handed over to the legendry German javelin thrower Uwe Hohn, the world record holder at 104.80m.
Changing his coach for the third time in such a short duration has, needless to say, been tough for him, but Chopra had learned important lessons from each one.
As it happened, the trailblazing Indian javelin thrower continued to shine on the world stage. He won the 2018 Asian Games gold with a national record throw of 88.06m.
His two consecutive gold in the 2018 Commonwealth Games and Asian Games was a testament to his imperial rise.
His stellar performances at CWG in Gold Coast and Asiad in Jakarta saw him being promoted to the Subedar post in November that year in an out of turn move.
But 2019 appeared to be a projectile in Chopra's career. He missed the whole season owing to an elbow injury which meant he could not take part in Asian Championships and World Championships. The injury eventually required surgery in May 2019 and Dr Dinshaw Pardiwala removed bone fragments from his right elbow joint and set him free.
Following his surgery, Chopra decided to part away from Uwe Hohn stating that he was unable to adjust to the German's training methods. After completing the rehabilitation, in mid-2019, he requested German biomechanics expert Dr Klaus Bartonietz to train him.
"I was with coach Uwe in 2018 and with him, I mainly improved my strength but also, I felt that the technique that he told me was a bit different and I talked to him about that. Then, when I started with coach Klaus, his technique and teaching methods suited me really well. Every coach has his own methods.
Every coach teaches something new and different. So, I would like to thank Uwe sir and Klaus sir for putting their heart into training me, which has resulted in the Olympic gold," observed the star athlete, who started athletics at a young age just to get rid of obesity. Chopra weighed 80kg at the age of 13.
The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics by a year proved to be a blessing for Chopra.
Since AFI found him feeling comfortable with Klaus, this time, they decided to let the partnership blossom. Klaus and Chopra had set their plan together. And Klaus sorted out his releasing issue. The technical aspect of his throw has improved under Klaus' training which eventually helped him to hurl historic 87.58m that resulted in the country's maiden track and field gold in athletics in the Olympic Games at Tokyo.
Everybody, from the Indian Army, the SAI, the AFI and his coaches, had played their part well. Following his return from Tokyo, Chopra attributed his success to everyone who helped him on his journey to accomplishing the Olympic glory. Deep down, his achievement is a result of a combined effort, heralded by the Indian Army, that has brought home a precious piece of gold we all love to hold.
As an ambassador of the Rajputana Rifles, Neeraj Chopra said how being a soldier helped him to his cause to become a champion athlete.
"I feel the Army's discipline is very important. An athlete is disciplined too but, in the Army, it's on another level. When I was with my Army unit, I saw how life is there. Getting up at 4 AM, doing all your chores on your own, and staying so committed in the face of danger teaches you mental toughness and discipline. Both are very handy for an athlete," stated India's most successful individual athlete.
Today's starlet of Indian sports did not forget his first coach, Naib Subedar Kashinath Naik, either. On the eve of his moment in Tokyo, Chopra called Naik and sought his blessing. After his trainee turned colleague's gold clinching show, an emotional Naik said, “I won a medal in the Commonwealth Games, however, I could not see my national flag being hoisted and our national anthem being played. The dream has been realised through Neeraj Chopra."
His Tokyo gold now assures him of promotion to at least Subedar-Major, a rank attained after 30 years of service, and a stadium named after him at the ASI campus.
Neeraj Chopra's stroke of genius on August 7 evening will certainly reinvigorate athletics in India which for decades looked for a protagonist like his calibre. From this context, it will not be wrong to say Chopra's feat is as much his as the Army's, the SAI's and the AFI's, among others.
About the Author
Sudipta Biswas is a sports journalist and author of Mission Gold: India’s Quest for Olympic Glory (2020). Biswas started his career covering grassroots sports in Kolkata and is currently researching and reporting on the Olympic movement in India.