87.58 metres: The measure of greatness

Neeraj Chopra is ESPN India's Male Athlete of the Year - 2021. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

These end-of-the-year awards are always a tricky business. There's always someone who is displeased. 'Look, X did this better.' 'No Y did.' 'Are you kidding me, it has to be Z!' There are usually multiple candidates, all with their own sets of achievements, flaws, fans trumpeting their superiority. You're biased if you choose one over the other, stupid if you don't.

Every once in a while, though, a year comes around where there's no debate. When the subjective and the objective meld into one singular being. When every vote is for one name.

2021 was such a year. When the question was asked as to who would be ESPN India's athlete of the year, male, the answer was obvious, unanimous.

You know who it is. Close your eyes for a moment and you can see it all again.

Floppy hair tied in a bandana. Biceps rippling in a dark blue sleeveless T. The run-up, starting off at a light jog, increasing in ferocity before ending in an explosion of studied violence. The javelin soaring into the night, just going and going and going. The arms held aloft, index fingers pointing at the sky. The roar. The greatness.


What is greatness? "The quality or state of being great," the dictionary tells us. Yes, very helpful... thumb back to 'great': "Of ability, quality, or eminence considerably above the normal or average."

What Neeraj Chopra achieved on August 7, 2021 was greatness. The kind that takes an accepted level and punts it up so high you can't quite comprehend it. That makes anyone who sees it pause and go, 'what the...'

That balmy Tokyo evening, Chopra ran in, threw his javelin a distance of 87.58m, and won Olympic gold.

No athlete in the history of Independent India had ever won a track and field medal at the Games. Only one had won an individual gold of any kind.

Indian sports history is replete with stories of near-misses. Especially athletics. It makes for a compelling narrative. There's an aura of haunting sadness that always surrounds the words that describe them.

This story, well, this one will have none of that. No asterisks, no conditions. No tragic 'what ifs. No 'oh, the world's best player wasn't there.' No excuses. No melodrama. Just pure sporting glory. Olympic Gold.

What makes it even more glorious is the way he did it. The primal beauty of his movement. The turn-and-celebratory-scream before the javelin even landed. The assured swagger that Indian athletes just aren't supposed to have. This isn't cricket! Indians do not saunter into an Olympic Games athletics stadium and just... dominate.

He did.

Unprecedented. On so many levels.

You take away the 87.58m, and his second best throw of 87.03m would still have won gold. The mark he hit in qualifying -- 86.55m, the highest -- would have won him gold. From start to finish, he led the field.

His consistency was remarkable. The nonchalance, absurd.

On the night, through qualification, before the Games itself. He did the little things right and the big things better.

Others in the field had previously thrown further than he ever had, but no one had prepared for the conditions better. While almost everyone went in the traditional ascending order of exertion, Chopra gave it his all in his first two attempts, while the humidity had not got to him yet. Those two were the longest throws of the Games.

You actually got a sense that things weren't entirely normal a few days previously, when he had gotten through qualification with his first throw. One throw, ease past the mark, pack your bags. No will-he-make-it tension, no I've-made-it-to-the-finals-celebration. Not one unnecessary moment spent in the sapping heat of the Japan National Stadium.

This was a triumph of cold, calculated planning. That isn't the norm. Not for Indian sports.

When under the spotlight, he hadn't let the clichéd weight of a billion expectations weigh him down. At no point did you feel he was beginning to doubt himself. He trusted his ability, his training, his destiny. He swaggered in knowing what he could achieve. He strolled out with the national anthem on his lips and history hanging around his neck.

The greatness. He knows it. He owns it. For him, you get the sense that all this is just another step. Somehow, that makes it all that much better.


ESPN India's Athlete of the Year 2021, Male. Neeraj Chopra. The man who put the considerably right back in "...considerably above average".