One-man revolution in India’s sporting landscape

It does not need much for the mind to travel back in time. Especially when it has to recall the magic of one of India’s greatest sporting achievements, Neeraj Chopra’s Olympic Games men’s javelin throw gold medal. It has been two years, but the freeze frames from Tokyo are etched in all our minds.

On an assortment of screens, TV sets, laptops, mobile phones, we watched him stay calm and let his throwing be the best form of expression. Of course, we also watched him applaud Johannes Vetter, who has thrown the greatest distance among the contemporary competitors. And we saw him merely spread his arms when he had confirmation that the gold was his.

Neeraj owned the greatest of sporting stages, winning the gold and pinning myriad freeze frames in our minds. Forever. And, quite instinctively, on that magical Saturday, each Indian would have seen a bit of oneself in the down-to-earth and humble champion who filled hearts with joy and pride.

Blessed with big-event temperament, he dominated the field which included six throwers ranked higher than him. Never did an Indian athlete, across several sports, boss his or her event in the Olympic Games like he did. It was the result of his skill and focus on finding optimum power at the time of the release to send the spear soaring away into the night sky.

Come to think of it, his gold medal lifted the mood of a nation, effortlessly instilling greater self-belief in its athletes. It spawned a thousand and more dreams, raised expectations, some of which can be more challenging than usual. Neeraj held the nation in thrall, letting its jaw drop in admiration of his athleticism and his earthiness.

Leander Paes ignited the spark of self-belief with his bronze medal in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta; Abhinav Bindra carried that flame forward in 2008 by becoming the first Indian to win an individual gold medal in the hallowed celebration of sport; and Neeraj Chopra fanned it with his spectacular achievement in Tokyo.

We can cherish that moment, feeling the goosebumps, but we cannot linger in the past and have to build on the gains. And that is the reason the National Javelin Day was conceived.Not by marketing wizards but Athletics Federation of India officials, aware of the import of Neeraj’s success and its potential to make a deeper impact on the Indian sports landscape.

It is their recognition of not only the young man’s contribution to Olympic sport but also in making all of India forget its problems of daily life and come together as one in celebration. It is one thing to pay lip service and say that the achievement would be written in letters of gold in the annals of history and another to remind India to clasp the joys of sport.

And yet, in their wisdom, they chose to think of it the National Javelin Day rather than the Neeraj Chopra Day, rightly placing the sport ahead of the achiever. AFI tied up with a sports equipment maker in Meerut and designed Kids’ Javelin to make the sport safer and more accessible to the Under-14 group as well.

The results were there for all to see in the National Inter-District Junior Athletics Meet in Patna this year when 807 boys and 627 girls competed in the U14 Kids Javelin competition besides their own favourite events. It is true that Neeraj has created greater awareness and interest in his discipline but to say he has ushered in a revolution in India would be an example of getting carried away.

There is also no doubt that all other Indian track and field athletes competing at the elite level have drawn inspiration from Neeraj’s fearless approach on the big stage, his equanimity and his ability to give his best in each competition that he enters. It is wonderful to see athletes like long jumper M Sreeshankar express their admiration of and gratitude to the Olympic champion.

On his part, the lad from Khandra village in Haryana’s Panipat district has kept his own inner fire raging. After an extended spell of celebrations in 2021 kept him away from training, he was practical in not rushing to compete. He spent time regaining fitness, delaying his return enough to be able to win the silver in the World Championships and the Diamond League trophy last year.

Anyone who tracks him now — and there is a legion of fans — will be aware that he has shown a great understanding of his own body. He did not hesitate in pulling out of events like the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham last year and the Diamond League meeting in Lucerne this year, understanding signals from his body and taking time to address its need to recover.

He is readying to add the World Athletics Championships gold medal to his trophy cabinet. And he also wants a repeat of the Olympic feat in Paris next year. But, wisely, he enjoys his sport rather than be consumed by the raging desire to add top prizes to his collection. He knows that it can be a restrictive thought when compared to the pursuit of happiness.

Also Read: Neeraj Chopra and a 100-Year-Old Dream  

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