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Neeraj Chopra and men’s hockey medals at Tokyo Olympics could fire a billion sporting dreams in India

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For a country generally bereft of success stories  in international sports outside cricket, Olympics medals have not exactly been a rarity in last two decades. However, the manner of success of Indian men’s hockey team (won a bronze at Tokyo 2020) and Neeraj Chopra’s gold in men’s javelin, annihilating traditional European powerhouses, could be watershed moments in Indian sporting history. They may fire a billion sporting dreams in the years to come. 

India was a traditional powerhouse in international hockey with 8 gold medals in Olympics, before the advent of Astroturf did them in. Our last medal in Olympics hockey came in 1980. India’s bronze in men’s hockey at Tokyo 2020 came after a wait of 41 years. While the color of the medal may not have been ideal, but the display put up by the team was nothing short of inspiring. After a long time, they didn’t play just to compete but to beat their opponents.

After the big loss to Australia in the second match, the team didn’t wither away as it did in the past. Instead it rallied to beat fancied opponents like Spain, Argentina (gold medalist in last edition), Great Britain and Germany on their way to the bronze medal. Most of these victories were ‘come from behind’ victories in must win matches. It speaks volumes about the team’s mental strength. The western teams, perhaps for the first time, realized that they could not blow away the Indians with their superior fitness standards. 

The Indian team matching them and even besting them on occasions on fitness parameters was a breath of fresh air for me. The superiority of our players in hockey skills was never in any doubt. Once our boys matched the powerhouses in fitness, the outcome on most occasions was not surprising. Obviously a lot of work must have gone into the fitness aspect of the Indian team. But our boys putting their hands up, doing the hard yards to enhance their fitness to match those of western powerhouses and not hiding behind excuses as in the past, was truly inspiring. It bodes well for future and many more medals in hockey are not too far away. The hockey federation has to keep up the good work. Self belief, the missing piece of the Indian hockey puzzle, is in place now.

If hockey medal in Olympics came after a wait of 41 years, a track and field medal came after a wait of a whopping 121 years for India. Hard to believe, but true. For a nation starved of athletics success, our icons like the legendary Milkha Singh and flying girl PT Usha, were not even medal winners at the Olympics. Both managed fourth place finishes at their respective Olympics appearances, missing bronze medals by a whisker. With that perspective, Neeraj Chopra’s medal in men’s javelin is special. Athletics represents the raw power of human endeavor to go faster, higher and farther.

Participation in athletics, unlike some other sports, is almost universal. Hence an Olympics medal in athletics is considered special. And when the color of that medal is golden, as in the case of Neeraj, it becomes super special. Neeraj has been a freak in Indian athletics, a precocious talent that does not need the system to rise. Something similar to Sachin Tendulkar in Indian cricket. International success was not new to him, having won golds at junior world championship, commonwealth games and Asian games, in his maiden appearances. But to blow away the opposition and win a gold at his maiden Olympics, was out of this world. Sports is more mental than physical. 

The men’s javelin field at Tokyo was the strongest in the history of the sport. Johannese Vetter, the pre tournament favorite, had a best throw of 96m. There were six throwers in the 87-90m range, including Neeraj. In short,  anybody could have  won the gold on his day. In such a competitive field, to qualify in his first throw and win the gold medal in his first throw as well, shows the mental strength of Neeraj. Every athlete has a plan. But to execute it on the big day is what separates champions from the also reins.

Neeraj’s strong first two throws put tremendous pressure on others. In fact Vetter, the pre tournament favorite, wilted under the pressure and failed to qualify for the second half of the finals. With Vetter out of contention, Neeraj’s gold medal became just a formality, with no other participant looking capable of pushing him.

Neeraj represents India’s gen next. Unencumbered by the failures of previous generations,  not overawed on international stage and possessing tremendous belief in his abilities. There are thousands of Neerajs out there. The sports bodies have to cast the net wide. The government and corporate sector has to support sports and make careers in sports more lucrative to attract more talent.

Last but not the least, parents should let their kids nurture sporting dreams and not smother it at the altar education and jobs alone. If lakhs of kids participate, dozens of Neerajs will naturally burst onto the scene. Dreaming of such a time in the not so distant future. Take care and keep dreaming India. 

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