All eyes on Neeraj to end wait for athletics medal

All eyes on Neeraj to end India's 100-year wait for Olympic medal in athletics

Chopra fuelled country's expectations by topping the qualification round with a stunning first round throw of 86.59m

Neeraj Chopra. Credit: Reuters file photo

All eyes will be on Neeraj Chopra to deliver India's elusive Olympic medal in athletics and end a wait of 100 years when he competes in the men's javelin throw final here on Saturday.

A pre-tournament medal contender, the 23-year-old Chopra fuelled country's expectations by topping the qualification round with a stunning first round throw of 86.59m.

Three track and field athletes were part of the five-member Indian team at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium -- the other two being wrestlers. Since then, no Indian has won a medal in athletics.

The International Olympic Committee still credits Norman Pritchard's 200m and 200m hurdles silver medals in the 1900 Paris Olympics to India though various research, including the records of then IAAF (now World Athletics), showed that he had competed for Great Britain.

A farmer's son from Khandra village near Panipat in Haryana who took up athletics to shed flab, Chopra can script history by winning the elusive medal, which the likes of late Milkha Singh and P T Usha let slip from their grasp in 1964 and 1984 editions.

"I am at my first Olympic Games, and I feel very good. In warm-up my performance wasn't so good, but then (in the qualifying round) my first throw had a good angle, and was a perfect throw," Chopra had said after the qualifying round on Wednesday.

"I will need to focus on the throw, and try to repeat this (performance) with a higher score," said the youngster who came into the Olympics with the fourth best throw (88.07m) this year.

Chopra's performance on Saturday was one of the best performances by an Indian in the Olympics, as he finished ahead of gold medal favourite and 2017 world champion Johannes Vetter of Germany.

Vetter, who had earlier said that Chopra will find it tough to beat him in the Olympics, struggled in his first two throws before crossing the automatic qualification mark with a 85.64m final throw.

The 28-year-old towering German, who came into the Olympics after having seven monster throws of over 90m between April and June, was lying at a dangerous seventh position after his first two throws but eventually qualified for the final at second overall behind Chopra.

Ask all top athletes and they will say what it counts is the performance on the day but Chopra will come into Saturday's final with a host of pre-tournament medal hopefuls falling at the first hurdle.

Season's second top performer Marcin Krukowski (PB & SB 89.55m) of Poland and 2012 Olympics champion and 2016 Rio Games bronze-medallist Trinidad & Tobago's Keshorn Walcott (PB 90.16m, SB 89.12m) failed to qualify for the final with best throws of 74.65m and 79.33m respectively.

Latvia's 2014 under-20 World champion Gatis Cakss (PB & SB 87.57m) -- fifth best performer this season -- and reigning world champion Anderson Peters of Grenada had poor throws of 78.73m and 80.42m respectively to fail to make the final cut.

Only Chopra and Vetter remain among the top-five performers this season.

Pakistan's Arshad Nadeem, who had won a bronze medal when Chopra clinched gold in the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia, topped Group B to earn an automatic qualification to the finals with a second round throw of 85.16m.

He qualified for the finals at overall third behind Chopra and Vetter.

The Indian camp here is hoping that Saturday should turn out the finest day of Indian athletics.

"I have always wanted an Olympic medal since I first became AFI president (in 2012) and I am hoping the dream will be realised before the end of my term," Athletics Federation of India President Adille Sumariwalla told PTI.

Sumariwalla's third term as AFI president will end in 2024 and he cannot be re-elected under the National Sports Code.

Sumariwalla and Klaus Bartonietz, the bio-mechanics expert in charge of Chopra, chief national coach Radhakrishnan Nair were seen cheering Chopra from the almost empty stands on Saturday.

Again on Saturday, the Indian athletics contingent is expected to be in full strength at the Olympic Stadium, hoping that history is created by Chopra.