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Why the Olympics move sports fans like nothing else

It’s not just gold that Neeraj Chopra has given everyone but the first chapter of a new education into athletic geometry

Neeraj Chopra's victory in javelin throw has us talking about impulse steps and discussing release angles.
Neeraj Chopra's victory in javelin throw has us talking about impulse steps and discussing release angles. (Reuters)

The FGM-148 is a portable anti-tank missile which can travel 2,000m and is known as the Javelin. Ok, I am in the wrong place. I am looking for information on a different kind of shoulder-launched missile. I dig, I find something else. In a Finnish research paper—and Finns, with 22, have won more Olympic medals in the men’s javelin than any other nation—they mention a javelin gun (a pneumatic device for testing javelin flight characteristics) that has been made from an old anti-aircraft gun.

This is all Neeraj Chopra’s fault. This is where he has taken me. On an internet dive into javelins. In one joyous morning, I watch videos on re-gripping javelins (the grip is made of cord), remember the Zulu assegai, realise the javelin existed at the ancient Olympics in 708 BC as part of the pentathlon and remind myself that Mel Gibson has a lust for violence. Have you seen the javelin scenes to hunt humans in Apocalypto? Don’t.

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Anyway, Roman Sebrle, 2004 Olympic decathlon champion, could partly tell you what it feels like. He jogs unthinkingly across a field in 2007 and gets impaled in the shoulder by a javelin which leaves a 12cm deep wound. “If it had hit me 10cm to the left,” he said then, “it would have punctured my lung, 20cm higher the throat, which would have been the worst case scenario.” One report states he pulled out the javelin himself. Decathletes, I tell you. The accident was in January and on 1 September he won the world championship. He was in third place in the decathlon till he produced a brilliant effort in the penultimate event. Yup, the javelin throw.

Anyway, I watch instructional videos by 2016 Olympic javelin champion Thomas Röhler and wonder why we never recite Jan Železný’s name enough when we talk about the greatest track and field athletes. Silver, gold, gold, gold. That’s his Olympic javelin record from 1988-2000. I read Jonathan Selvaraj’s fine deconstruction—“What Makes Neeraj Chopra So Good?”—on, where he discusses the fascinating link between javelin and gymnastics. But then Olympic champions learn from everywhere. The 1932 triple jump champion, Chūhei Nambu of Japan, watched frogs and monkeys to fine-tune his leaping.

All this reading, watching, thinking is because of Chopra. The exceptional feat often leads to the extraordinary reaction. Suddenly, he has us talking about impulse steps and discussing release angles and it’s not just gold he has given everyone but the first chapter of a new education into athletic geometry. A sport is always more fun when you start digging into the bones of its craft.

In our daily life we are already back to cricket and swooning over football, but the Olympics—to rephrase an old Heineken ad—refresh the parts other events cannot reach. To watch is to feel humbled, for it reminds us of how little of sport we know. Just the diversity of human movement is astonishing. One night in my bonsai Tokyo hotel room, I watched on TV as a female karate exponent performed a kata, a solo dance really, which consists of a series of offensive and defensive movements of such force and flow that it seemed the air was crackling. Only on reading a New York Times story later did I realise the sound came as the athlete’s “uniform whip-cracked around” her.

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We all speak specific sporting languages, usually decided by the culture we are born into, but the Olympics are a four-yearly chance to acquaint ourselves with multiple dialects. You learn technique and equipment, costume and eccentricities, and leave arenas talking a strange lingo. “En-garde,” instructs the referee in fencing, “allez” he commands, and occasionally an “attaque simultanee” (simultaneous attack) ensues. It all sounds so civilised in the Makuhari Messe Hall B till barbaric yells emerge from behind masks. Fencers believe in elegant havoc.

In a rower’s craft, near her shoes sits a GPS device which informs her about stroke rate, pace, distance covered as she hurtles down a 2km course. Swimmers live in liquid and tell you about “holding” the water better and give esoteric answers on feel. Rowers are earthy folk who speak about “skying”, which an Olympian tells me is when their blade is too high above the water.

Every day, the dossier grows and the lexicon expands. At the skateboarding—yes, it belongs at the Games—I feel illiterate when the commentators talk about “judo air”. At they have an intriguing description: “An air where the skater grabs near the nose and kicks the front foot off the toe side. Looks like a judo kick. I think judo doesn’t use kicks but whatever.” Hmmm, let’s move on.

But most of these brief romances we have with less fashionable sports at a Games usually don’t last. We swoon and then forget and return to Novak Djokovic. So you need a reason to stay with one, or a guide to lead you, and that’s who Chopra is. It’s what Abhinav Bindra did in 2008, letting us do with shooting what we might not have otherwise done, which is feel a sport, investigate its difficulty, appreciate its nuance, understand something about pellets, trigger pressure, clicks, sighting, when to fire, fussiness (James Bond is less concerned about the cut of his jacket than Bindra was), SCATT training systems, posture.

In Poland, they love pole vaulting, Brazilian women shine at volleyball and South Koreans evidently have an archery gene. Always, there is a spark to a love affair. Or a shot—in Bindra’s case a 10.8 in 2008—to start a revolution. But now kids will believe they can be pure athletes and will ask for javelins. Parents might call specialist shops. Clubs will send orders to Meerut manufacturers. Athletic associations might buy in bulk. It doesn’t quite matter who pays for them because each one sold will be a gift from Neeraj Chopra.

Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.


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