Medal contender Neeraj Chopra became the first Indian javelin thrower to enter the finals of the Olympic Games with a stunning throw of 86.65m in his opening attempt that put him on top of the qualification round here on Wednesday.
The 23-year-old kept India’s hopes of an elusive Olympic medal from athletics alive by earning a direct entry into the finals to be held on Saturday as he sent the spear well past the qualifying mark of 83.50m in his first attempt.
However, Shivpal Singh failed to make the final cut with a below-par best throw of 76.40m, which he came up in his first attempt, to finish a lowly 12th in the Group B qualification which featured 16 athletes.
Competing in his first Olympics, Chopra took just a few seconds to make the final round. He topped the Group A contest as well as the two qualifications rounds.
A farmer’s son from Khandra village near Panipat in Haryana who took up athletics to shed flab, Chopra left the javelin arena after his first throw.
”I am at my first Olympic Games, and I feel very good. In the 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 said after his event.
Chopra is, however, under no illusion that the final will be a totally different contest where the world’s best will go for a podium finish.
”It will be a different feeling (in the finals) since it is my first time in the Olympics. Physically we (all) train hard and are ready, but I also need to prepare mentally.
”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 will go down as one of the best performances by an Indian in the Olympics, as he finished ahead of gold-medal favorite 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 an 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.
”It was a bit tough today for me. It is hot, takes some time to the right timing, the right positions, and the right rhythm. It is what it is right now. I have to analyze it and try to give my best on Saturday (in the final),” Vetter said.
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.
Those who touch the 83.50m mark or the 12 best performers qualify for the final on Saturday. Some top performers this season made early exits.
Poland’s Marcin Krukowski (PB & SB 89.55m) 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 Cakes (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.
Finland’s Lassi Etelatalo (84.50m), 2017 world championships silver medallist Jakub Vadlejch (84.93m) of the Czech Republic, and Julian Weber (84.41m) of Germany were the others to advance to the final as automatic qualifiers. The Indian athletics contingent, including Athletics Federation of India (AFI) president Adille Sumariwalla and Klaus Bartonietz, the biomechanics expert in charge of Chopra, were cheering from the almost empty stands.
This was Chopra’s seventh-best throw and third best of the season 2021.
The earlier six best throws are 88.07m (March 2021; Indian GP-3), 88.06m (2018, Asian Games), 87.87m (January 2020; ACNW Meeting in South Africa), 87.80m (March 2021; Federation Cup), 87.43m (May 2018, Doha Diamond League) and 86.79 (June 2021; Kuortane Games in Finland).
The reigning Asian Games and Commonwealth Games gold medallist had been short of preparations in the run-up to the Olympics with just three international events, out of which only one — Kuortane Games in Finland — was of a top-class level where Vetter took the gold and he finished third The 26-year-old Shivpal, who has a season’s best of 81.63m and personal best of 86.23m (in 2019), began with a 76.40m and then came up with disappointing efforts of 74.80m and 74.81m in the next two throws to finish 12th in Group B and 27th overall out of 32 competitors.