New Delhi: Neeraj Chopra heralded a new era in Indian athletics with his colossal Tokyo Olympics gold that acquired him a superstar status in the country which had waited for such spectacular success in track and field events for more than a century.
Son of a farmer, a strapping Neeraj, who turned 24 on Friday, immortalised his name in Indian sports history with his gold-winning throw of 87.58m on August 7, the penultimate day of the showpiece.
It was not even his personal best effort but it did not matter as Chopra became only the second Indian to win an individual gold medal in the Olympics after shooter Abhinav Bindra.
Short of top-class competition in the run-up to the Olympics, Chopra was not even a sure-shot medal contender but he out-performed the field by some distance to enter Indian sporting folklore.
Brimming with confidence, hardly showing any nerves, Chopra literally owned the field with his bossy throw, which was listed one of the 10 magical moments of track and field in Tokyo Games by World Athletics.
Who would have thought that a plump kid who took to athletics to lose weight would end up being India’s first track-and-field Olympic gold-medallist!
It was India’s first gold in 13 years and second after 1980 Moscow Games.
“It feels unbelievable. It’s a proud moment for me and my country. This moment will live with me forever,” Chopra said after winning the historic gold.
While Chopra’s golden moment is a new beginning in Indian athletics, but the year also witnessed the end of an era with the demise of legendary Milkha Singh — one of independent India’s greatest sporting icons who missed an Olympic 400m bronze by a whisker in the 1960 Rome Games.
Aged 91, the ‘Flying Sikh’ died in Chandigarh, just a couple of months before Chopra’s historic feat.
Chopra dedicated his inspirational achievement to Milkha who had dreamt of seeing an Indian winning an Olympic gold in athletics before his death.
“Milkha Singh wanted to hear the national anthem in a stadium. He is no longer with us but his dream has been fulfilled,” Chopra said.
It was also redemption time for Indian athletics, mired into doping controversies for long. The sport finally shed the tag to prove that it can win medals beyond the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games.
Discus thrower Kamalpreet Singh was also in the limelight briefly after she finished second in the qualifying round. She eventually ended in sixth position in the final.
The 25-year-old made rapid progress in recent years as she improved more than 4m to set a national record (65.06m) in Patiala before the Olympics.
The men’s 4x400m relay team shattered the Asian record but still failed to make it to the final, underlining how tough competition is in the Olympics.
Avinash Sable was the other Indian who bettered his national record in the men’s 3000m steeplechase but could not make the cut for the final while the likes of sprinter Dutee Chand disppointed.
Hima Das did not even qualify for the Games.
The sporting world thrown haywire by the COVID-19 pandemic, no one was certain about a medal in the men’s javelin throw event except for supremely confident — rather over confident as it turned out to be — Johannes Vetter of Germany who came into the Olympics after having seven 90m-plus monstrous throws.
In contrast, Chopra competed in just three international events.
The two of them were minor events with local competitors in Europe and Vetter had famously claimed that it would be tough for the Indian to beat him.
But Chopra had the last laugh as he topped the qualification round easily while Vetter struggled to even make it to the final round.
Vetter was eliminated after three throws in the finals while a confident and calm Chopra scooped the gold with a second round attempt.
Such was the frenzy in the country in the felicitation events lined up for him that Chopra had to leave a one such function midway due to exhaustion.
His social media following shot up to millions overnight and his brand value skyrocketed.
He finally joined camp two months after his Olympics exploits and left for the United States for off-season training.
The year also saw Indian youngsters doing well at the World Junior Championships in Kenya with long jumper Shaili Singh, a protege of Anju Bobby George, and 10,000m race walker Amit Khatri winning a silver each.
Belarusian middle and long distance coach Nikolai Snesarev died at the NIS Patiala hours before a competition while another former athlete, 1951 Asiad medallist and 1952 Olympics marathoner Surat Singh Mathur died of COVID-19.
Legendary coach O.M Nambiar, who nurtured sprint legend, PT Usha, into a world-class athlete, also passed away after he was bestowed with Padma Shree early in the year.