All Neeraj Chopra needs is a good night’s sleep.
India’s newest gold medallist hasn’t had a proper nap since he checked into the Games Village. At times, it was because of performance anxiety. On other occasions, like the day of his qualifying round, it was the competition timing. And on most occasions, it’s been the dope-control officers.
“I came here from Sweden and there was a significant time difference,” he said. “So, it took some time to get used to this. I would sleep a little late, so was hoping to sleep till a little later in the mornings. But the doping control officers would show up at 5.45 am or 6 am for the past two days and whisk me away.”
On the bus from the Olympic Village to Tokyo’s National Stadium on Saturday, Pakistan’s javelin thrower Arshad Nadeem was flipping through some pictures on his mobile phone when he stopped at one image and showed it to Chopra, seated next to him.
“It was our photo from the Asian Games,” Chopra said. “He was saying how, through that photo, people in Pakistan equate us to Abdul Khaliq and Milkha Singh.”
Honouring the legends
The mere mention of Milkha Singh made Chopra emotional. So much so that during the highest point of his career, the 23-year-old spared a thought for those who came agonisingly close but could not scale the peak. India’s first Olympic track and field champion dedicated his medal to them.
“When Milkha Singh ji passed away, I felt very bad. I wanted to meet him with an Olympic medal because that is what his dream was. It is sad that he’s not among us but I hope he’s seeing us from above and is happy that with this (medal) his dream has come true,” Chopra said. “Even other athletes like PT Usha, who missed out on a medal by centimetres, I hope they’re all happy.”
Chopra hurled the javelin 87.58m during the final, becoming only the second Indian to win an individual gold after Abhinav Bindra at the Beijing Games – and the first to win a medal of any colour in track and field.
Chopra recorded his longest throw in his second attempt, with no one coming close to his mark; the kind of dominance rare and unexpected given the competitiveness of the field. Chopra, who topped the qualification round as well, said he was confident of achieving ‘something unique’ although he said he was targeting only his personal best.
“After the second throw, I thought I’d get my personal best. The Olympic record is 90.57m and it did cross my mind to target it,” Chopra said. “I think I tried to overdo it. My last throw was a little more stable but the ones in between were not great.”
The last throw, however, did not matter. By then, he already knew the gold medal was his. The evening’s next best thrower, Czech Republic’s Jakub Vadlejch, could only manage 86.67m.
Chopra said his heart rate increased as the competition neared its end. “These are all great athletes so it was possible they could turn around the competition with just one throw,” Chopra said. “So all I thought was we need to be prepared for any kind of throw they may manage. I was confident I would do something unique.”
Chopra broke into a measured, impromptu celebration after his final throw. He then bowed to the turf, wrapped a Tricolour around his shoulders and did a lap of honour. “All the hard work, all the injuries, everything that’s happened over the last five years, went away (with the National Anthem playing). I felt all the hardships were worth it.”
He didn’t get overly emotional on the podium. A ‘current’ passed through his body as the anthem played but Chopra ‘didn’t want to cry’ on the podium.
He just wants one thing. “Proper sleep. It’s been a while.”