The chutzpah of Chopra: How a javelin throw gave us all a rare glimpse of history

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

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

It flew, he flew, we flew. And the most freakish thing about it was how smooth and uncreased Neeraj Chopra made an Olympic gold medal performance look. Uncomplicated, unpressured, unburdened. Independent India's first Olympic medal in athletics is gold, its only gold in Tokyo comes from the field, its second individual Olympic gold comes with Chopra bossing it on the world stage as if we have, yawn, 300 Olympics golds. And as if August 7, 2021 was just another day at the office.

We have not had this kind of day, not in this kind of office, never in the living memory of a single Indian alive. That's how monumental Chopra's achievement is. Monumental, with an emphasis on the second half of that word because we had even started counting the days since the Bindra gold. Four thousand seven hundred etc etc. This was India's last event in Tokyo, until now a mixed Olympics, achievements and six medals scattered through the two weeks, with crushing disappointments and heart-stirring performances. Chopra's javelin final was both sign-off and send-off. Seeyalater and relax, Uncle.

India at Tokyo: Saturday recap | Key dates | Athletes | Medal tracker | Full schedule | Latest results

The chutzpah of the guy. Dark blue vest and shorts, bib no. 2297, spotted bandana, floppy hair, every bit a strapping dude on the make, Chopra has sauntered through the Tokyo Olympics. Indians at an Olympics don't saunter. They are usually on high alert, wound up, looking over their shoulder, game face on. After today, stick that into the past tense. They had not sauntered before but now they can.

Chopra's swag is his signature. It's not offensive or in your face, it doesn't involve trash talk, it just is because he knows what he is - world class. Four days ago, he treated the Olympics qualification event like a weekend meet in an unknown European city with 100 spectators. He's the big name, he turns up for one throw, flings the javelin to 86.95m and leaves.

In the Olympic final, Chopra arrives. It's just past 8 p.m. in Tokyo, he's the second man on the programme and his first throw hits 87.03m. Right there is what the Australians call a boilover. A shock sporting result. The titan of his field, Johannes Vetter, is yet to appear. There have only been two throws and already the rest of the field knows Chopra has left them for dust.

Given the up and down nature of Indian performances in Tokyo, the phrase 'Olympics pressure' has become central to discussions of our athletes' performances here, tagged on to the contingent. Chopra has heard none of it. Or he's not listening.

His second throw, start to finish, is pure showbiz - javelin aloft, the sprint across the track, his right arm draws back, the spear fused on to his body like a limb. Then comes the explosive release, his body sent tumbling groundwards in a technique seen today amongst the most elite throwers, if only to stop it from following the javelin into the air.

In one fluid motion, Chopra stops the fall with his hands, springs back onto his feet and raises his arms. Number 1. His back is turned towards the flight of the javelin and he is sprinting towards the stands. He knows, he knows. We are slack-jawed. There has never been another Indian Olympic performance like this. In excellence, in theatre, in outcome. The javelin lands - it is 87.58m. Nobody would know at the time, but the final is finished there, the medal is sealed there. The numbers stop mattering, it's the threat perception that has thrown up the barrier between Chopra and the rest.

Fundamentally, Chopra's gold medal came off three throws, one in qualifying and two in the first half of the final. Had they given medals to distances, he would have won both gold and silver. The gold has sent us into paroxysms of joy but with some unprocessed feeling. Are our shrieks this loud because he's won gold or because of how he did it or both or what it has done to us?

Inside an hour, Chopra has become the sporting megastar from a frontline Olympic discipline that India has never had before. How he copes with the aftermath of his success and how his sport in India treats him will tell us a lot about Chopra himself and the athletics establishment. While the path to all Olympic success is strewn with hardship and sacrifice, it is also lined with planning, method, discipline and focus. Without one, the other is incomplete and Chopra's short career is a template that can be easily followed.

Not everything turns to gold, but like Chopra said, he knew he had thrown well in the qualification so he knew he could do better in the final. He turned up, he performed. How the others did was not his problem.

Athletics is among the most fundamentally central and celebrated disciplines at the Olympics and Chopra has planted the first Indian flag on it. He has done it emphatically, with no narrow margins, with a large gap between him and his nearest rival - after three rounds, a Covid-appropriate, socially-distant 2.14m - without having millions of Indians break into sweat. At the medal ceremony, even if behind the mask, his bobbing Adam's apple tells us he is singing the national anthem. As cameras closed in on his face to catch the good-for-TV tears, Chopra reminded us of his age. When a 23-year-old catches sight of his close-up on the giant screen, what can he do but sneak a quick look?

His javelin is made by a company called Valhalla, which in Norse mythology is the giant hall of the Gods, a place for heroes and glory. Chopra has put himself there. The javelin itself is the perfect symbol of athletic flight, a streamlined, aerodynamic flying object, an elongated bird even, minus the bulk of the discus or the hammer or the shotput. It is something meant for scaling distance and boundaries, and on a Saturday night in Tokyo, Neeraj Chopra did that. Not just for himself, but for India and its sport.