Neeraj Chopra’s run-up with the javelin is about 20m, to cover which he takes about 15 steps. After that comes the crossover, a few side steps to generate momentum just before the throw. Milliseconds before the release, his torso tilts back, and his throwing arm goes into full extension, and the javelin is released. It cuts across the Tokyo night sky to bring India the country’s first Olympic gold medal in athletics. The throw was beautiful, ruthless, and assured. And while India celebrated those magical few seconds, only a select group of individuals can remember another attempt, made behind closed doors at the Inspire Institute of Sport (IIS) in Karnataka in September 2019, which was as important in creating history as the one in Tokyo.
But let’s back up further to when Chopra started complaining of excruciating pain in his right elbow in January 2019. Plenty of scans were done, experts sought out, and opinions taken. “We found loose bodies in the joint and eventually decided that he must undergo surgery to remove them in May (2019). He could not get his elbow into full extension. The pain was terrible,” says Dhananjay Kaushik, head of sports science and physiotherapy at IIS. Kaushik is responsible for designing the rehabilitation and fitness protocols for top level athletes and sports teams, and this list also includes another Olympic medal winner, Bajrang Punia.
It’s not easy to throw a javelin. Kaushik says that the external shoulder rotation range of a regular person is around 80-90 degrees, and that of a javelin thrower is sometimes as much as 180 degrees. An article in Moneycontrol.com breaks down Chopra’s throwing mechanics by comparing it in cricketing terms: “He threw the weight of nearly five cricket balls at a startling speed of about 100 kmph across a length of more than four cricket pitches. The length of a cricket pitch is 20.12 metres. Neeraj’s best throw in the final was 87.58 metres.” Chopra’s javelin weighs 800gms, while a cricket ball around 163gms.
The 23-year-old is described as “intelligent and very smart” when it comes to fitness, but even elite athletes need to be carefully managed. Chopra only rested for a week after his surgery in 2019 and he was back to a two-hour workout in the morning and 90 minutes in the evening at IIS. “Mornings were for full body conditioning using medicine balls, bikes, and core strengthening work. The second workout was focused on range of motion exercises within the limitations of the elbow. You simply have to respect the healing time the body takes post surgery,” says Kaushik.
A team of physios and sports scientists worked on Chopra’s wrist, on improving the extension of other joints and on strengthening certain intrinsic muscles. After a month of this, the team started working on strengthening Chopra’s affected elbow. 100 days after surgery, Chopra started throwing medicine balls of different weights, before moving on to throwing a stick instead of a javelin. “The stick was 100 grams and we moved the weight up gradually” says Kaushik, who calls some of the work that needs to be done during rehab “monotonous and repetitive.”
The biggest takeaway of this entire process was that it gave Chopra a chance to work on other areas of fitness which were being ignored while he was in competition. It’s the small niggles, the ones which athletes play through, that were finally receiving some attention. The rest of his body had to be at peak fitness, only waiting for the elbow to catch up.
“Neeraj is someone who never misses a workout and follows each and every instruction in the gym,” says Ishaan Marwaha, who worked closely with Kaushik and travels with Chopra to events. “Rarely, on some days, he asks if he can order french fries and has only four of five of them. The rest of them are mine then,” says the 33-year-old. Chopra hasn’t had sugar in more than a year, Marwaha adds. “He has told me many times that once everything settles, ‘mujhe ek baar tasalli se khaana hai’,” which means he wants to eat in peace, and without thinking of the repercussions.
By September 2019, Chopra was ready to throw a full-sized javelin. Marwaha, like Kaushik, was present at IIS when it happened. He says the nerves before both throws, the first after surgery and the one in Tokyo, are comparable. “The only difference was in what we were seeking. We knew in September that he’d make the throw, and the distance was not important, evaluating his body was. In Tokyo, we were only focused on the result and the distance.”
Chopra’s reaction was different though. “He’s an expressive person and you could see happiness radiate from him after that first throw since surgery. But as rehab pros, we don’t try to show our emotions, so we control them till the job is done, which is bringing home an Olympic medal,” Kaushik added.
Chopra performs well under pressure. His throws in smaller competitions are not breathtaking and he saves putting on a show for the important medals. “We aim to bring his weight between 86 and 87kg on the day of the throw. He was 86.5kg on the day of the Tokyo throw, having probably lost half a kilo in anticipation of the final event,” says Marwaha, who, along with Chopra, is only just realising the scale of Chopra’s achievement.
“We were on the way back after the event and Neeraj asked me 'yeh kya ho gaya bhai [what have we just done]'. It was surreal,” he remembers.
The Olympics can be grand and cruel at the same time, with years of preparation meaning either nothing or everything in the space of a few seconds. Neeraj Chopra is the great Indian sporting success story. And celebrating that story includes celebrating the hundreds of throws that came before Tokyo, and the hundreds that will hopefully come after.
Pulasta Dhar is a writer and football commentator.