Unlike Neeraj, keep an eye on the soaring spear that is Indian sports
Aside from the highlight of this Olympics seeing India's best-ever medal haul, the Games saw the critical mass of athletes delivering compelling performances.
As moments that linger in collective memory go, this one is right up there.
It has been nearly a week since Neeraj Chopra hurled the spear into the Tokyo night sky. As countless eyes swooned and gasped, tracking its path, Chopra had already turned away. He didn't need to wait for it to land, his hands were aloft and his celebratory scream was already resonating in the stadium. At that moment, Chopra, still all of 23, had laid down the marker for the rest of the field.
Saw that guys? What you got now? Think you can match that?
It was a shape shifting moment. That it was Independent India's first ever track and field medal was significant in itself. However, in how it was captured lies the essence of this passage of time. As the competition wore on, littered with athletes from nations that traditionally occupied podium positions in the Javelin throw at the Olympics, it became blatantly evident that the only medals on offer were Silver & Bronze.
The Gold had been secured by a young man who'd only started doing this thing he was doing because he wanted to lose weight.
Think about that for a second. History wasn't merely being made here, but in his decimation of the other 11 competitors on the night (worth remembering, Chopra had also thrown the longest distance in the qualifying round), he elevated Indian sport to a pedestal it had never been on previously.
This wasn't a Gold Medal being won in a nerve-wracking, tight, toe to toe contest. On the grandest stage of all, with an audience of millions upon millions glued to their TV screens around the world, he was eviscerating the elite practitioners of his craft in the world.
Fun fact: No Asian man had ever won a medal in the Javelin throw at an Olympics. Of any colour. Ever.
A tale of belief and confidence
Over the last few days, as Chopra and several of his fellow medal winners from Tokyo have been fêted and celebrated, there is an unmistakable sparkle around Indian sport. While the best ever medal haul at an Olympics is the collar grabbing headline, simmering within the storylines is a critical mass of athletes that didn't just produce compelling performances, but did so with nerveless composure.
It is a measure not merely of supreme confidence, but the faith and belief in their skill, training and preparedness to step up on the big stage.
Observe how after every successful lift in her silver winning effort, Mirabai Chanu would break into a bright smile as if to say – I got this, do not worry. Disbelieving hockey observers watched in awe as the women's team protected a one goal advantage over powerhouses Australia in their quarterfinal, defending with poise and panache, refusing to cave in to relentless pressure.
Grouped alongside the World's top ranked player (who would eventually win Gold), Aditi Ashok nailed putt after putt in a serene final round. Against the World's fourth ranked Fencer, Bhavani Devi was beaten but there was no capitulation to the very end of their contest. Ravi Kumar Dahiya, down 2-9 with the clock ticking away, overturned the deficit with a spectacular counter-attack that sent blood pressures soaring across the country. On being overcome in the final after a gallant battle against a World Champion, his eyes were teary on the podium while receiving Silver, as if to say, this wasn't what I was here for.
In response to every question in interviews after her bronze, Lovlina Borgohain, not more than a speck on the boxing radar before the Games began, insisted winning Gold in Paris was all she was focused on. She was only the second Indian female boxer to secure an Olympic medal, yet her celebrations were tempered, not raucous, as a feat of this magnitude would demand. In his bronze medal play-off, Bajrang Punia disposed of the brace in place to protect his yet to fully recover knee. His explanation – it was just getting in the way, what's a little bit of pain, just suck it up and get on with it.
PV Sindhu, already an international player of rare pedigree, left the crushing disappointment of her semifinal loss with an efficient effort to secure her second Olympics medal, whole-heartedly embracing the challenge of a third, a Gold this time, in three years from now. The men's hockey team, overturning a two goal disadvantage against Germany, a team accustomed to winning Olympic Golds and World Cups, to secure a first ever medal for the sport in 41 years. They would return having only been beaten by the two teams that reached the Gold medal clash.
The audacity of Neeraj Chopra
And then there was Chopra, the most audacious of them all. When he first caught the eye with an Under-20 World Championship Gold in 2016, a first as well for India, he identified the Tokyo Games four years on (it would end up being five) for an assault on the Olympic Gold. As public proclamations go, his turned out to be eerily precise.
In the interim, Chopra's trajectory remained steadily upward, with Asian and Commonwealth Games Gold medals. Even elbow surgery in 2019 on his throwing arm was just a temporary blip as he returned to action with renewed energy and focus.
In essence, the audacity of Chopra and this assembly line of Indian athletes at Tokyo places Indian sport on the cusp of a momentous leap. The infectious confidence flows from an ecosystem that while still imperfect on many fronts, is undoubtedly streets ahead of what Indian athletes had to contend with in years past.
Substantial government funding and targeted corporate support has ensured areas such as top-class coaching, nutrition, strength & conditioning, exposure trips, specialised interventions, injury prevention & treatment and mental conditioning are in place. High Performance programs such as the ones adopted for the Hockey teams in the previous decade are starting to bear fruit as well.
Challenges remain of course, as India aspires to find its place among the elite in world sport. A second consecutive Olympics without a medal for shooting, that sent its largest ever contingent with 15 athletes, is a troubling setback for a sport that produces exceptional, world class performers.
Archery continues to be a frustrating blind-spot, where despite some impressive outcomes at Tokyo, India are yet to win their first Olympics medal. Deepika Kumari's candid admission of the "pressure of the five rings" demands a deeper understanding of the malaise in a sport India succeeds at every other competition in, other than the Olympics.
The mood though is unquestionably positive and upbeat. Over the next three years, with an Asian, Commonwealth and then an Olympics on the calendar, fans have enough opportunity and reason to remain invested in the sportsmen and women who captured their hearts and minds in Tokyo. Hope remains that they show up on our TV screens more, leagues and other competitions pop up and find the spotlight.
In its truest sense, while Tokyo was a culmination of years of effort, planning and hard work, it is also the starting point of the next phase in India's sporting journey. So unlike Neeraj Chopra, keep your eyes fixated on the soaring spear in the sky in the months and years ahead. It promises to be quite the joyride!