Yearender 2021: From the frenzy around Neeraj’s historic gold to Sreejesh’s deserving smile at Tokyo Olympics

In sport, as in life, there are events within events. Moments that shape the moment of glory. Moments that are more immortal and imperishable than numbers. As a breathless year of sport ends, and another restless sporting year ready to unfold, The Indian Express brings the moments of the year captured for the sporting gallery soaking a variety of emotions. Moments that made us cry and cringe, some that made us leap in joy and some that made us plunge in agony, some that brought child-like laughter, and some that made us think like a philosopher.

Neeraj Chopra trolling everyone with his ad after the Olympics

In August, Neeraj Chopra became an overnight sensation with his landmark Olympic gold in athletics – India’s first in track and field. It would go down as the most historic of medals in India’s Olympic history. The most important in the nation’s sporting history, matched perhaps only by the only other gold-medal winning effort by an Indian, Abhinav Bindra at Beijing 2008.

Not that the buzz around him had subsided, but Chopra delivered another sensational performance next month. This time with his acting. He captured the fan and media frenzy around his stardom and the nation’s new-found love for him and the javelin throw event in an out-of-the-box ad for Cred.

“Give this guy an Oscar already,” a user had commented after seeing the ad showcasing Chopra in various avatars aiming to cash in on the frenzy around him. He is a brand manager in a boardroom meeting discussing SEO-friendly taglines. A reporter with a goatee asking personal questions. A moustachioed cashier apprising him of the day’s gold rate. A filmmaker planning biopics titled ‘Neeraj Hua Maddham’ and ‘Medal Le Chuke Saman.’ And a wannabe javelin thrower.

Bajrang removing knee strap, going all out in the bronze medal playoff

Feeling the need to train more before the big event, Indian wrestler Bajrang Punia skipped the Poland Open and headed to Russia, where he ended up injuring his right knee by choosing to compete in a local event — Ali Aliev tournament. This meant no training at all before Tokyo.

“I could not do mat training for nearly 25 days. I was not able to run as well after the injury. Before a tournament like the Olympics, even missing one day’s training is not good,” he had said.

Bajrang was off-colour in his first three bouts in Tokyo but played his usual tactical and aggressive game in the do-or-die bronze medal bout and comfortably beat Daulet Niyazbekov from Kazakhstan to earn a podium finish on Olympic debut.

“My coaches and physio wanted me to continue to play with taped knee in the bronze bout. But I don’t feel comfortable. It feels like someone has tied my leg, so I told them even if an injury happens I can rest later but if I don’t win medal now, all the work will be lost, so I went all out,” he had said.

The dancing Mirabai Chanu after winning silver

The 26-year-old Mirabai Chanu lifted a total of 202 kgs (87 kgs in snatch + 115 kgs in clean and jerk) to win silver in the opening day of the Games. She finished behind Hou Zhihui of China, who set an Olympic record with a lift of 210 kgs (94 + 116).

Moments after the result was made formal, Chanu was on a video call with her teammates from Patiala. They sang and danced until she had to be dragged out for the medal ceremony.

Once the medal ceremony was over, Chanu resumed the dancing in the mixed zone, an area next to the field of play where athletes and media interact, breaking into an impromptu jig.


Bite at your own risk: Silver-medallist Ravi Kumar responds to opponent’s bite with double leg takedown and a chest wrap

Wrestler Ravi Dahiya scripted one of the greatest comebacks on the mat in the semifinals. Down 9-2 with less than two minutes to be played in the semifinal of the 57kg weight class, the Indian caught hold of the Kazakh grappler Nurislam Sanayev’s left leg and rolled him over the mat before eventually pinning him in one of the most stunning takedowns these Games had so far seen.

Ravi won the match by fall but later, pictures and videos revealed a deep bite mark on Ravi’s right bicep. The bite by Sanayev reminded of the incident when Sushil Kumar was accused of biting the ear of his Kazakhstan opponent Akhzurek Tanatrov during the 2012 London Olympics semifinal.

Aditi Ashok’s putt game and one of India’s most memorable fourth-place finishes

“Can’t believe India woke up at 4 am to cheer me!”

This is what Aditi Ashok said after she produced the best ever performance by an Indian at the showpiece.

Golf returned to Olympics in 2016 after over a 100-year gap and Aditi had competed at that edition, finishing tied 41st. Five years later, the World No. 200 went toe-to-toe with World No. 1 Nelly Korda of USA and former World No. 1 Lydia Ko of New Zealand.

Overnight sole 2nd, she finished fourth with a three-under 68 in the final round that left her 15-under 269 overall while Korda took gold with a four-round total of 17-under 267.


Sreejesh’s 21 years of hardwork fetches India historic bronze

“It’s a rebirth, that’s it,” were the words of PR Sreejesh after he made the most vital save of his career, repelling Germany’s penalty corner to ensure India’s podium finish at the Olympics after 41 years. Sreejesh was the impenetrable force for India. It was a team effort but Sreejesh’s heroics stood out as the men in blue went on to finish on the podium at the Olympics after an excruciating wait.

He made 40 saves during the tournament, and stopped an uncountable number of shots throughout his career. But one of them has a special place in his heart.

Seven seconds to go for the final hooter and India conceded a penalty corner against Germany in the bronze medal playoff match. The drag-flick from Lukas Windfeder zipped through the defence but Sreejesh made sure that the white ball did not go past him.

He later climbed up the goal post to celebrate even as his teammates cried and hugged each other in elation. For the former captain, it was a moment to savour – an Olympic medal at the end of 21 years of hard work while donning the national colours.

Rivals on court, supporters off it

PV Sindhu hugged me and told me I know you are sick but you did very well, but today was not your day. She held me in her arms and said she knew it all. That sincere encouragement made me cry,” wrote Tai Tzu-Ying in an Instagram post. It was an emotional moment for the World No. 1 player, who was competing in her third Olympics but lost the final to Chen Yu Fei of China.

Five years earlier at the Rio Olympics, Sindhu had emerged second best as she went down to Carolina Marin of Spain in a hard-fought three-game loss and the Indian knew exactly how the player from Chinese Taipei was feeling.

Reel-inspires-real moment: ‘Ex coach Kabir Khan’ to ‘Real Coach’ Sjoerd Marijne

Like in the film ‘Chak de India,’ the Indian women hockey team defeated Australia – in real life to enter the semifinals of the Olympics. Elated after the win, India’s coach Sjoerd Marijne posted on Twitter a picture of himself with the team members from inside a bus.

“Sorry family, I coming again later,” the coach wrote in the caption. Hours later, Shah Rukh Khan replied that the coach can take his time to come back home but return with a gold for a “billion family members.”

“Thank you for all the support and love. We will give everything again. From: The Real Coach,” Marijne replied. The medal proved elusive but the Indian women’s hockey team earned plenty of respect with a momentous fourth-place finish.

One of the most thrilling Paralympics high jump finals

Amidst the heavy downpour in Tokyo, India’s T Mariyappan, Sharad Kumar engaged in an intense battle for a podium finish along with American Sam Grewe.

The Indian duo easily jumped their way through to the 1.83m-mark without any failed attempts. With the medal confirmed, the Indian pair saw their first red flag of the day on the 1.86m-mark. Mariyappan and Sam Grewe, after clearing 1.86m, twice struggled to clear 1.88m. An intense battle for a podium finish followed but the American finally bagged gold medal by soaring over the mark in the final attempt while the Indian could not. Meanwhile, Sharad Kumar grabbed bronze after scaling his season best height of 1.83m.

It’s all about competition but also sportsmanship

It looked like the intense battle would end up in tears for one of them. Round after round, high jumpers Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar and Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi competed against each other for the high jump gold medal but failed to outdo one another — prompting an official to tell them the next step was a ‘jump-off,’ to see who could simply outlast the other.

In one of the most emotional and heart-warming moments in Olympic history – the two decided to share the high jump gold rather than continue with the jump-off at Tokyo 2020. The rare joint Olympic championship became the talk of the tournament.

Putting mental health first: Simone Biles

Simone Biles arrived in Tokyo as the star of the US Olympic movement and perhaps the Games themselves. She convinced herself she was prepared for the pressure – that she was ready to carry the burden of outsized expectations.

Only, as the women’s gymnastics team final approached, the American star withdrew from the competition from five of her six events to protect her mental health. This opened the door for the team of Russian athletes to win gold for the first time in nearly three decades.

“We also have to focus on ourselves, because at the end of the day we’re human, too,” Biles said. “So, we have to protect our mind and our body, rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”

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