It’s difficult for Indian athletics fans to hide their excitement today. After all, following three years of carrying the huge expectations of being a medal candidate, Javelin star Neeraj Chopra heads into the men’s javelin final among the favourites to grab a historic top 3 spots.
Factually speaking, sprinter Norman Pritchard was the first and only athlete to win medals (silver medals in 200m and 200m hurdle) at the 1900 Paris Olympics while representing British India.
Since then, the closest Indian athletics ever come to achieving this feat was finishing fourth — that too twice — by legendary runners Milkha Singh (400m final of 1960 Rome Olympics) and PT Usha (400m hurdles final of 1984 Los Angeles Olympics). Not to forget that long jumper Anju Bobby George — India’s sole medal winner at a World Championship — also finished fifth at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
But is the tall claims made about Neeraj’s chances of winning the historic medal really true? A closer look at the facts suggests a medal is a possibility as only eight of the world’s top 20 javelin throwers managed to qualify for the 12-man final. But make no mistake, a medal still won’t come without challenges and at the top of those challenges sits a certain Johannes Vetter.
The World No. 1 German heads into the final with a lot of noise over his performances leading to the Olympics. Back in September 2020, Vetter hurled a huge throw of 97.76m (in Poland) to present himself as the favourite for the Gold. He then continued with his fine form in the new season with his season-best of 96.29m.
The 28-year-old German also breached the 90m mark with ease five more times this year and looks untouchable in the final for someone like Neeraj, whose best throw of 88.07m (a national record) came at the beginning of the season.
Saying that Vetter did struggle during the qualification round three days earlier and had to wait as long as the third and decisive attempt to go past the direct qualification mark of 83.50m with an 85.64m mark.
It was actually a surprising qualification round that saw two of the medal contenders Keshorn Walcott and Marcin Krukowski go out with below-par throws of 79.33m and 74.65m throws respectively with fingers being pointed at the hot and humid conditions for such results. Also, two of the big names like Magnus Kirt and Andreas Hofmann didn’t make it to the Olympics.
This subsequently had a direct impact on the quality of the final as a look at the list of finalists from the perspective of season-best performers suggests it’s an open field. In fact, none of the throwers — excluding Neeraj and Vetter — have hurled the javelin above 87m in the months leading to Olympics.
In fact, Macedonia’s Pakistan’s Nadeem Arshad (season-best of 86.66m), Belarus’s Andrian Mardare (SB 86.38m) are the only two throwers after the top two, who have gone beyond 86m this season.
Likes of Czech Republic duo Vitezslav Vesley and Jakub Vadlejch, Germany’s Julian Weber have thrown beyond 88m in the past but have been off their game this season. None of them has yet gone past the 85m-mark while Weber even struggled to gain direct qualification.
Saying that Neeraj’s biggest concern this season has been the Indian javelin star himself as since his huge 88.07m throw in March, the World No. 16 has gone beyond the 87m-mark just once. That too came in Patiala again in 12 days time at the Federation Cup with an 87.80m hurl.
However, 86.79m throw in Poland in late June, followed by 86.65m in the qualification round meant the medal is in the reckoning for the thrower, doesn’t matter if it goes beyond 90m or not.