Monday, August 9 2021

Dive In

It’s such a bad thing. We put our life and soul into it, struggle and sacrifice so much to represent our country and when we see what is happening—what happened to Vandana’s family—I just want to say to people please stop this religious division and casteism. We have to rise above this. We come from different religions—Hindu, Muslim, Sikh—and come from all parts of India. But here we work for India.

That’s Indian hockey captain Rani Rampal angrily calling out the men who hurled casteist slurs at her teammate Vandana Katariya’s family—after the team’s loss in the semi final. Watch her here.

Big Story

Editor’s note: I had a wonderful time speaking with Cyrus Broacha on his podcast—about everything from news pollution to insane news anchors and my adventures with the Tamil language. And I belly laughed my way through the entire interview. Check out the YouTube version here or the podcast here.


A wondrous gold medal for Neeraj Chopra

The TLDR: The young man from Panipat sent an entire nation into a paroxysm of ecstatic joy when he threw his javelin for 87.58 metres—and secured our first gold medal in track & field. We look at this moment of great national pride—and see where credit is due, and where it is not.


First: Javelin explained

The aim of the sport is deceptively simple: You throw a metal-tipped javelin as far as you can. The rules are that the athlete must hold the javelin by its corded grip—with the little finger closest to the tip of the implement. The men’s javelin typically weighs at least 800 gms and is 2.6-2.7 metres long. For a throw to count:


  • You can’t cross the foul line.
  • The javelin must land tip-first within a marked 29-degree sector..
  • You can’t show your back to the landing area at any point during your throw. 
  • No under-arm throws. You must throw the javelin over the upper part of your throwing arm.


The history: It essentially evolved from throwing spears to kill animals during a hunt—and was incorporated into the Olympic Games in 708 BC. Men’s javelin became part of the modern Olympics in 1908, while the women’s version followed in 1932. The men’s world record of 98.48 metres is held by Czech athlete Jan Zelezny—who set it back in 1996.


Meet Neeraj Chopra

The village: Chopra grew up in the village of Khandra near Panipat in Haryana—with a current population of 2,000, most of them farmers. There is no gym here or even a playground. The young people either work the fields like their parents or move to the city to seek a fresh start.


The childhood: Chopra was the eldest in a joint family of 17—an adored and pampered child, as his uncle notes: “He wasn’t allowed to do any household chores. We didn’t send him to work in the fields. He was the first kid in our family and he was like a doll for us.” And he soon grew tubby—weighing 85 kg in 2011—on a doting diet of makhan and malai. 


Discovery of javelin: So his father put him in a gym in Panipat—which was 17 km away from home. And on his way, Chopra would stop by Shivaji stadium, where he first met athletes who would come there to practice:


“My pocket money was about Rs 30 and many days I didn’t even have money for a glass of juice. I travelled by bus for about 17 kilometres to reach the stadium and returned with my uncle who worked in Panipat city."


It is also where he first discovered javelin thanks to a professional thrower named Jaiveer Choudhary:


“Although I was running to shed weight, I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I used to stand at some distance and watch my senior Jaiveer, who has represented Haryana in javelin, practice. One day, at his behest, I tried the javelin. I discovered I could throw it far and the realisation helped me regain my self-esteem."


A star is born: He started training seriously when he shifted to Panchkula at the age of 14. And by the end of 2012, he was the under-16 champion. His family—which owned only 10 acres of land—stretched their meagre finances so Chopra could join a national camp. By 2017, he was a junior officer in the Army—which was a break of a different kind:


“We are farmers, nobody in the family has a government job and my family has been supporting me with difficulty. But it is a sort of relief now that I am able to support my family financially besides continuing with my training.”


Rise to success: The path to Tokyo has been a string of successes—starting with his gold at the National Open Championships in Kolkata in 2015. He finally broke the 80 metre mark the same year—and in 2016, he won the South Asian Games in Guwahati with a throw of 82.23 metres. The big turning point: Winning a gold at the World U20 Athletic Championship the same year with a throw of 86.48 metres. By the end of 2018, Chopra had won the gold at the Asian Championships, the Commonwealth Games, and the Asian Games. 


A rocky road to Tokyo: At the beginning of the 2019 season, he suffered an elbow injury—which triggered a conflict with the Indian team coach, the legendary Uwe Hohn. Against Hohn’s wishes, Chopra underwent surgery and stayed out of the tournament circuit through 2019. He finally managed to compete at the Athletics Central North East Meet in South Africa—where he landed his Olympics qualification. 


The winning moment

The golden throw:  On the first attempt, Chopra threw his javelin a distance of 87.03 metres—which gave him the lead. His second throw went even further to 87.58 metres. His third throw only traveled 76.79 metres and he fouled on the next two attempts. The last throw that sealed his triumph: 84.24 metres. It was lower than his personal best of 88.07 in March this year. But it was good enough to beat his two Czech rivals, and secure the gold.


The winning quote: Chopra dedicated his win to all the great Indian athletes who have paved his way to glory—including the great Milkha Singh:


“When we were in Kourtane [Finland], Milkha Singh ji passed away and I felt very bad. I did not meet him when he was alive, and I wanted to meet him with an Olympic medal. Sadly, he’s not among us but I hope he's seeing us from above and is happy that his dream has come true. Even other athletes like PT Usha and others who missed out on a medal by centimetres—I hope they’re all happy.”


Big cheers all around: Of course, everyone and their mother rushed to congratulate the gold-winning superstar. The best of the lot: PT Usha who tweeted out the photo below with the message: “Realised my unfinished dream today after 37 years. Thank you my son.”


Point to note: Even the greatest victories require a bit of luck. Chopra’s biggest threat was Germany’s Johannes Vetter—who has thrown the javelin to 90 metres-plus distances seven times between April and June this year. He had a miserable outing and ended up at #9. 


A big Olympics for India



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