Pressure? Does Neeraj Chopra have that for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Is that the secret behind those broad, sculpted-in-stone shoulders? The reason for those nerves of steel? On Saturday, 7 August, when history beckoned in Tokyo, Chopra didn’t flinch, didn’t wobble. Carrying a baggage of 121 years of disappointment and defeat, he ran, he hurled the javelin, he clinched gold. It was independent India’s first medal of any colour, let alone a glinting gold, in track and field at the Olympics. It was only the second individual gold medal for India, after Abhinav Bindra broke the drought in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics.
Bindra has been writing personal letters to each of India’s medalists at the Tokyo Games, and for the first time he had a chance to pen down the words, “Welcome to the club”. In 2008, Bindra had been a picture of nerveless, precision shooting, as he shot 10.8 in the final round to clinch gold in the 10m air rifle event. In 2021, there was no fuss, nor any nail-biting drama, as the 23-year-old Chopra hurtled towards history, barely breaking a sweat on a stifling evening in Tokyo.
In his maiden Olympics, Chopra had qualified for the final at the top of the table with a throw of 86.65m. He started the final on Saturday by throwing the spear to a distance of 87.03m. It proved too much for any of his competitors to overhaul, but the Indian bettered it on the second attempt as he registered a throw of 87.58m. This was athletic brilliance, and it was golden. Bindra labelled Chopra’s feat a “symbol of excellence”.
Anju Bobby George, who reached the long jump final at the 2004 Athens Olympics, was present for the virtual media interaction with Chopra just after his triumph and gleefully asked if he could show the medal. The man of the moment obliged. He held up the gleaming medallion and wore a winning smile. Athletes like Anju and Milkha Singh and PT Usha had paved the way for this historic feat, and the gravity of this was not lost on Chopra.
“This medal is for all the Indian legends in athleticswho have come before me,” he said. “People always said we are not world class in athletics. There were little gaps…Milkha Singhji and PT Ushaji missed it by a whisker. With this medal, I hope things will change.”
Chopra’s emphatic gold came in the last event on the last day of India’s Tokyo Olympics sojourn. It summed up the country’s coming-of-age performance. With seven medals, including one gold, this was India’s most successful Olympics. If India entered uncharted territory in athletics, they reclaimed lost glory in hockey and continued their medal streak in wrestling during an inspiring second week at Tokyo 2020.
The tone was set by the hockey teams’ emotional run to bronze medal matches. Hockey, we were taught in school, is our national sport but this year we saw that India’s connection to the sport, our pedigree in it survives. We romanticise the past, the golden age of Indian hockey that seemed to abruptly end at the Moscow Olympics in 1980. But the men’s and women’s teams in Tokyo yanked us into the present, showed us they could play modern, pacy, smart, strong hockey and win.
The women’s team, long trailing in the shadows, was determined to break down all the imagined walls and emerge onto the world stage. They took on teams bigger in size and reputation and never backed down. Ranked No 9 in the world before the Olympics, they made a daring run to the bronze playoff. This was only the third appearance for the women’s team at the Olympic stage, and this was the first time that they competed for a medal.
Trailing defending champions Great Britain 0-2, the Indian women bounced back by scoring three goals in four minutes. For the first time, the team had a specialist drag-flicker in Gurjit Kaur and she made her presence felt in the knockout stages. Kaur scored the first two goals off drag-flicks and Vandana Katariya pushed India into the lead with a smart last touch on a field goal. But India’s fairytale run just fell short of a happy ending as Great Britain hit back to a register a hard-fought 4-3 win.
Almost as if a switch had been turned off, India’s trail blazers stopped running, bent over their sticks and let the emotion take over. Some of them cried inconsolably, they had aimed for the moon and had missed by a whisker.
“To be in the semi-finals is a big achievement. Maybe we need some more time to realise the feat,” captain Rani Rampal said. “I am proud of every single member of the team. We have sacrificed a lot to achieve this physically and mentally. We played like a team. It is more painful because we came so close to it.”
The men, meanwhile, defeated Germany in a high-pressure, high-intensity bronze medal playoff to win India’s first medal in hockey in 41 years. This team had used their time in lockdown, at the Sports Authority of India campus in Bengaluru, to get used to the draining heat of Tokyo by training at noon. Their better conditioning and improved tactical awareness had been evident throughout the tournament.
India rallied from 1-3 down against Germany to score a 4-3 win. The way they protected and defended their lead in the tense fourth quarter summed up how much they wanted, and needed this win. “People were forgetting hockey in India,” said defender Rupinder Pal Singh. “They loved hockey, but they stopped hoping that we can win. But we won today…Keep believing in us.”
If the hockey teams took us on a sentimental ride, it was business as usual on the wrestling mat as a Ravi Dahiya and Bajrang Punia made sure India continued the medal streak that had begun with Sushil Kumar at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Before this, all we knew of Dahiya was that he was a student of India’s best wrestling nursery—the Chhatrasal Stadium—and that he idolised Sushil Kumar. Dahiya let little else on as he claimed the silver medal to emulate his hero. Right from the first time he emerged onto the playing arena till the medal ceremony, Dahiya kept his game face on, and not once cracked a smile, not even when standing on the podium. The 23-year-old had come for gold, and anything less didn’t seem to call for a celebration.
It was a similar story for BajrangPunia, who felt the bronze didn’t quite have the glitter of gold. Seeded second, the 27-year-old was one of the pre-tournament favourites. But Punia, the first Indian wrestler to win three World Championship medals, fell short in the semi-final, going down 5-12 to Haji Aliyev of Azerbaijan. A day later, he redeemed himself with a dominant 8-0 win over Daulet Niyazbekov to win the bronze medal.
The Indian contingent had started its last day at the Olympics on a heartbreaking note. Golfer Aditi Ashok, who gone unnoticed up until then, was the talk of the town as she started the final day of competition second on the leaderboard. Indians, who had so far treated golf with cold indifference, were up by 3:30 in the morning to follow her fortunes. Ashok, ranked 200 in the world, had seemed unflappable as she brushed shoulders with the best in the business. But she sunk to third, then fourth and missed out on a medal contention by one stroke. Later that day, Punia’s bronze gave something to cheer about.
Finally, everything changed, for the Indian contingent in Tokyo, for Indian athletics, for Indian sport, as Neeraj Chopra stepped into the spotlight at the Olympic Stadium, spear in hand, hunting for glory.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.