Ice-cold Neeraj Chopra turns Olympic legend with India's first athletics gold

Talking Tokyo: Neeraj Chopra enters the history books (1:55)

Former Olympian Aparna Popat on Neeraj Chopra's historic gold medal (1:55)

Neeraj Chopra's javelin flew out of his hand, disappeared into the bright lights of Tokyo's Olympic Stadium and landed in the realm of legend.

With his second throw in the final of the men's javelin throw competition, Chopra (23) managed a distance of 87.58m. It was a huge throw, in so many ways. It was more than enough to win gold but also made Chopra the first Olympic champion for India in a track and field event and only the second individual gold for any Indian.

Chopra knew it the moment it left his arm. He turned around at his rivals and unleashed a primal roar. In truth, Chopra didn't just win, he crushed the field, finishing 91cm ahead of the rest; his next-best throw was more than the silver-winning distance. Essentially, Chopra took his rivals out of the equation with that one throw.

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There was some drama along the way. His biggest rival, the javelin legend and world record-holder Johannes Vetter, had a poor showing and failed to qualify for the second part of the finals, finishing ninth after three throws. But none of that really mattered because, from his first throw, Chopra was way ahead of the field.

He would let the 11 other competitors know just what they were up against with his very first throw of the final. He ran in six paces with steadily increasing speed, followed by a cross-step. He would have felt it in his elbow as his ligaments stretched until they were ready to snap. He had transformed his body into both bow and bowstring. The javelin was the arrow, the bullseye in front of him was greatness.

Following his cross-step, his right foot blocked, stopping all his momentum in the fraction of a second, transferring it through his body, down his arm and wrist and into the javelin as it was released. Tokyo has been buffeted by an approaching typhoon, and throws across the field for both men and women had been poor. But his Nordic Valhalla, a bodkin-tipped javelin, is built for just such conditions. Ruthless on bad technique, it can cut through the crosswind when thrown just right. Chopra was near perfect.

The Valhalla ripped through the Olympic Stadium and buried itself by the tip 87.03m away. If Chopra had stopped right there he would have won gold. He didn't. He confirmed the prize with his second throw of the evening. Once again, the release was perfect. As his compatriots watched with furrowed foreheads, he had just slammed the door on the rest of the field. They would have to be content fighting for the lesser medals.

He had entered the final having put the field on notice with a qualifying mark of 86.55m in his very first throw on Tuesday. That mark in the final would have won him gold. Yet there was some scepticism about his ability to carry that into the final, with some feeling he would go the way so many Indians had already - peak too early. That didn't happen.

The day before the final, while many of his competitors tossed and turned, Chopra had been laughing at the antics of his cousins on videos, sent to him by his uncle and longtime supporter Bhim Chopra.

On Saturday, the friendly older cousin would transform into ice-cold competition crusher.

Chopra, the son of a farmer from Haryana, had climbed his personal Mount Olympus to get here. He never had a coach growing up and only entered the sport by a quirk of fate. He had learned watching YouTube videos. His talent was always there but the time was never quite right. He had missed qualification for the 2016 Olympics only by a matter of a few days, while becoming the first Indian to win a junior World title.

"It was not my time," he had then said calmly. He had cemented his promise, winning gold at the Commonwealth and Asian Games. But was he that rarest of them all-- a genuinely world class Indian competitor?

His path grew harder as his exertions saw him snap the ligament in his throwing elbow. He underwent surgery, the last option on the table, and as he rehabilitated, could only watch - his arm in a sling - as Anderson Peters, the man he beat in the juniors, won the world title. He missed out on a year of competition while he recovered. He continued to bide his time, keep his faith. He would qualify at the last possible moment but then it seemed that his efforts were in vain as the games were postponed.

Would his journey to greatness be halted? It had seemed that way when, on the resumption of the season in 2021, Chopra dropped out of the world's top 3. Vetter, with 17 throws over 90m, laid down the gauntlet.

Chopra had never ever crossed the elite 90m level in training but the solidity of his technique means he consistently throws around the 86m mark - a mark he has crossed in four of the five competitions he has taken part in this year.

Meanwhile, the throwers expected to be his biggest competitors -- 2012 Olympic champion Keshorn Walcott, 2019 World champion Peters and Marcin Krukowski, who had the second best throw this season -- all failed to make the final.

Chopra just kept throwing consistently and on the biggest stage, when it mattered most, while the pressure seemed to get to Vetter, he continued to do what he did best. He simply threw his 700-gram javelin as far as he could - and launched himself into history.