It’s not just about the Gold Medal

Photo by Bryan Turner on Unsplash

I switched on my TV yesterday afternoon just as the javelin throw finals began at the Tokyo Olympics. Athletes were starting off with their first round of throws and I was just lucky enough to not miss any. The reason for the excitement, as for a lot of other Indians, was the 23 year old thrower from Panipat who had entered the finals as the Group A semifinals table leader. This shouldn’t have entirely been a surprise since he’s already had accolades to his name like being the World Junior U20 Champion, a gold medalist at the Asian Games and a gold medalist at the Commonwealth Games, among others. He is also the national record holder for India, which though noticeably lesser than the world record (even post correction of the earlier 104m record due to change in the spear’s center of gravity), is a mighty achievement. But what did make it a pleasant surprise was that in the same Group A in semifinals, he came out better against Johannes Vetter who was considered the favorite for the Gold. Now, Vetter, 28 years old, is the current champion who has consistently breached the 90m mark with a personal best of 97.76m and the German national record holder. Chopra’s best, also the national record, stands at 88.06m- that’s an almost 10m difference. Many would say it just wasn’t Vetter’s day at the semifinals, which is fair and possible and, in fact, very much likely in sports. But even on this bad day Vetter qualified for the finals and he could always find his form back when it mattered the most.

What happened at the finals…

So coming back to the finals, Chopra’s first attempt is an impressive 87.03m, just a metre shy of his personal best, if all goes well this could be good enough for a podium. At the end of first attempts for all throwers, Chopra emerges the leader, 1.73m ahead of Vetter’s compatriot Julian Weber. However, it was a little too early to reach any conclusions with 5 rounds remaining.

In his second attempt, Chopra bettered his throw by over half a metre to 87.58m- good signs and Chopra knew this as soon as that spear left his hand, celebrating without even needing to take a look at its trajectory. Vetter, the main contender, failed to improve in both his next two attempts, eventually stepping past the foul line. At the end of round 3, Vetter was eliminated from the final three throws and it’s at this point you realize Chopra’s podium spot might not just be any spot, but that elusive top spot. Another bad day for Vetter? Maybe. But Neeraj Chopra was not placing any bets on the day.

There was some action in the second half of the finals which saw the Czech duo cement their place and knock Germany’s Weber out of the podium spots, with the 38 year old veteran Vitezslav Vesely grabbing the bronze. If you think about it, there is a good 15 year age difference between Vesely and Chopra, so Vesely was probably already on route to becoming a Javelin star when Chopra was born! And then there’s the fact that the Czech Republic has a history of producing some excellent Javelin throwers, including the current men’s and women’s world record holders. But with them at the center of the podium was our own Neeraj Chopra, that feeling we as a nation had longing for- the gold at track and field at the Olympics! For the first time, the Indian National Anthem echoed in-between the numerous other events going on at the stadium.

The story so far, and the reason for the story so far…

India has never found itself in a great place when it comes to performing at the Olympics. While India has been participating since it was under the British rule in 1900, in the first 100 years of the history of the Olympics, it never made it past 2 medals in any edition of the Games. However, there was that ‘golden’ era of Hockey that lasted from late 1920s to 1950s where India dominated the sport and ensured that gold always came home, repeated again in 1964 and 1980. There were some silvers and bronzes later in Hockey too, along with two silvers in 1900 (in athletics) and one bronze in 1952 (wrestling), but that was pretty much all what India’s story at the Games was. Between 1980 and 1996, despite our athletes’ best performances, India missed the podium entirely till Leander Paes’ bronze in ’96. The picture isn’t exactly great, but still not as bad at Commonwealth Games and Asian Games.

It’s hard to say what the reason for India’s tough time at the Olympics is, for there are probably so many. The nation itself has had its fair share of other problems, and sports wasn’t one of those on top of the list. A large chunk of the population struggled to barely make ends meet, and sports was too risky an option for livelihood. So, being a sportsperson in India has just never been easy. Then there are problems that need to be taken care of to be the best in your field, there are aspects of coaching, health and nutrition, techniques, guidance and training; and the more grassroot things like scouting for talent, encouraging sports, nurturing talent, providing a safety net for athletes and way many more things I’m probably not even qualified to comment on. Somewhere along the way, we also became wildly obsessed with Cricket, letting our eyes off the one sport that we loved and historically excelled at, and leaving very little space for anything else. And there weren’t many sports we even had the basic expertise or guidance in. On top of all this, throw in a bit of politics in the mix and you have the ideal recipe for how not to handle sports in a country of over a billion. And trust me, we tried and our athletes have always given their heart and soul to what they did, but there was just so much more that needed to be done. Nothing’s to be blamed, yet everything’s to be blamed.

The current picture

Not to undermine the importance of Paes’ bronze at Atlanta in ’96, but to me the biggest turning point in India’s recent history at the Olympics was Karnam Malleswari’s bronze at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. This symbolized so much more than just winning a bronze medal. It stood for an Indian woman winning a medal, it stood for focusing on sports that had perhaps not gotten the attention they deserved, and it displayed the ability to go the distance in individual events.

Since then, there have been slow yet steady positive signs in different areas. We are now beginning to see a healthier encouragement from the central and state governments, better coaching, improved medical/nutritional guidance and infrastructure for our athletes, and involvement from various NGOs that have really gone over and above their duties to help provide the much needed expertise. Some former athletes have really played a major role in this area. Then there was the crucial role and support of the Indian Army. Results are visible in various sports like Wrestling, Badminton, Boxing, Shooting, Weightlifting, Hockey (yay!) and now, finally, Athletics (more yay for Javelin!). And this enthusiasm is what it’s all about.

This year saw the biggest ever contingent from India participate at the Olympics, a 120+ squad of talented men and women participating across 18 sports. This is more than twice the number of athletes that participated in the 2008 games, an impressive improvement. But how does that compare to other nations that usually top the table? Just for perspective, China’s contingent comprised 431 members! There is always the math that the more sports you compete in, the better are your chances of having a great tally at the end (basic statistics :D). China, however, has been even smarter about their pick in sports and they do seem to have inclinations for some sports over others, many of which have relatively sparse competition. So there is that element of strategy too when you want to settle for nothing less than a gold!

What next?

I guess we can agree that with every victory, big or small, inspiration comes in equal volumes. And this one is by no means a small one! So more than just an indicator of success, the first gold in track and field at Olympics brings tons of inspiration and motivation for every aspiring athlete and every kid (and even every parent) to give their best shot.

At the same time we can only hope the support continues to improve across all facets. There is enough room for progress in identifying talent early and nurturing it. In addition to other scouting systems, the schooling system can definitely take lead in encouraging students to look beyond just books (which has usually been the case with Indian schooling). Then on it’s about giving opportunities of world-class coaching, best-in-class equipment and ensuring overall fitness and nutrition. Athletes who are ready to give their everything to their sport deserve to have access to everything that can help them improve, along with enough safety nets.

And probably the last thing to remember for everyone- whether you’re in the games or just watching them at home- cheering and enjoying every bit of it, in the right spirit!

Here to share my thoughts, experiences and learnings. While they may or may not apply for everyone the same way, would love it if you give the writing a chance.