(Image Credit: Reuters)
Folklore has it that one of the most spectacular sights in the epochal Kurukshetra war was the wielding of the spear by the Pandava King Yudhishthira. An absolute maestro of his craft, Dharmaraja (as Yudhishthira was popularly known), was unparalleled in the use of the weapon of his choice. The most righteous of all Kings also had a favourite spear. The one that felled the powerful ruler of the Madra Kingdom, Shalya. Shalya had sworn his allegiance to the Kauravas and on the eighteenth and last day of the bloody war, engaged Yudhishthira in a duel to the death. Even though an expert spear thrower himself, Shalya succumbed to the best in the business. Yudhishthira was so taken in by the power of this particular spear that he continued to pay obeisance to it for many a year following the epic battle with Shalya.
Neeraj Chopra should not have any conundrum when it comes to deciding which amongst the multiple javelins in his formidable repertoire ought to be the first among equals. 1.4 billion people have made the choice for him and honestly, he should have no axe to grind with the unanimous verdict. A javelin that has hurled both Chopra and Indian into the hallowed portals of history. A javelin that floated in the rarified atmosphere for what seemed like an absolute eternity, traveling 87.58 metres before gracefully curving down and lodging itself firmly into a small piece of turf. A javelin that exorcised the ghosts of the gut wrenching miss of the Flying Sikh Milkha Singh and the heart breaking loss of P.T. Usha. A javelin which gifted India its first ever individual athletics (Track & Field) gold medal in the history of Olympics.
On the 7th of August 2021, Chopra, the son of a farmer from Khandra village adjacent to Panipat in the state of Haryana left an entire world gob smacked and a few egos terribly bruised. At the Japan National Stadium, in the finals of the Javelin competition, Chopra came steaming in on his second throw and threw his javelin to the accompaniment of a delighted roar. His euphoria was justified when the officials measured the distance at 87.58 metres. While, there was no way Chopra could have known at that time that he was well on his way to writing himself into the record books, an entire nation roared along with him in pure expectation, unadulterated hope and untrammeled glee. Dwindling field, brutal eliminations, and unbelievable upsets later, Chopra ended India’s 100-year wait for a track and field medal in the Quadrennial event. Johannes Vetter, the undisputed favourite for the gold, and a man who had taken some strategic potshots at Neeraj Chopra after the qualifiers, contending that the Indian did not have the capability to best Vetter’s distance, saw himself astonishingly eliminated at the halfway mark. The German did not even make it to the top eight and the ultimate throwdowns.
It is just astonishing when one realises that Neeraj Chopra is all of twenty three years old. The temperament shown by him throughout the competition in what has to be the grandest stage of all, was of the highest calibre. In this he has to be equivalent to the mythical character of Yudhishthira, who was acclaimed for his level headedness and a sangfroid demeanour. There was something sanguine about the very way that the gold medalist went about his business. Supremely confident yet seemingly assured, nonchalant yet single minded and capable yet muted, Chopra was a textbook example of a champion at work. Jan Zelezny of the Czech Republic and also the greatest ever javelin thrower of all time (what is it with these Czechs that makes them preternatural javelin throwers? The silver and bronze medalists at Tokyo 2020, Jakub Vadlejch and Vitezslav Vesely respectively, are also from the Czech Republic), remarked, “I would like to finish where I started”. Neeraj Chopra has just started and hopefully it would be a long long long time before he finally finishes.
The final day of medal prospects for India began on a heart breaking note. The golfer Aditi Ashok, ranked 200 in the world, fell short of the playoffs for the bronze medal by just one cruel stroke. This after giving her more illustrious competitors an obdurate and fatiguing run for all money. Staying on in second place and in contention for the silver medal, for what seemed like an inordinately long time, Aditi, was profoundly unlucky not to have made the cut. The wrestler Bajrang Punia provided some much needed redemption and salve for sentiments by bagging the bronze medal in the 65 kg category by comprehensively outwitting Daulet Niyazbekov of Kazakhstan 8-0.
The day however belonged to Neeraj Chopra. He bludgeoned the field before proudly standing atop the podium with the glittering gold medal dangling from his neck. The “Jana Gana Mana” accompanying the tricolour imperially wafting up before gloriously unfurling must have been at its melodious best. A strain that would be played again and again and again on an infinite loop.
Sport in addition to being a great leveler is also a selfless redeemer. The world is going through times hitherto unimagined. A pandemic, the likes of which has never been seen before is wreaking insidious damage on both the physical health and mental well-being of millions of people across the globe. At trying times such as this, a helpless and hapless humanity looks for some piece of succour to hold on to. Such hope is lent by sport. Even though the respite might be brief and the distraction temporal, it nonetheless represents a happy interval separating segments of grief and reconciliation. But this respite might just be the panacea having the potential to bring about a miracle if not a cure for all ailments.
Neeraj Chopra and the sport of javelin have contrived to provide a teeming, throbbing and pulsating nation, exactly the respite which they sorely craved for. Hope indeed springs eternal. Chopra might just follow Dharmaraja’s footsteps and if he does so, one particular javelin will be at the receiving end of infinite prayers extending over decades.