Fast-rising Neeraj Chopra India's best bet for Tokyo

Neeraj Chopra PTI/Shirish Shete

One of the biggest 'what if' moments of Indian athletics took place just a couple of years ago.

It came at the Junior World Championships at Bydgoszcz, Poland, when an 18-year-old Neeraj Chopra won gold in the javelin throw. It was a historic event all the same, for Chopra was the first Indian athlete to win gold at any World Championships.

However, had Chopra achieved his javelin throw of 86.48m -- still a national record -- just 10 days earlier, he could have been with the Indian contingent at the Rio Olympics 2016. He might have even returned with a medal -- for the bronze in Rio went to Keshorn Walcott, with a throw of 85.47m.

With the deadline for entries having closed, Chopra could only watch and wonder about what could have been.

To his credit, Chopra was not a one-throw wonder. Since his path-breaking feat, Chopra, although not exceeding that throw, has stayed within touching distance. Medals have come regularly at the senior level too. In August last year, he won a gold medal at the Asian Athletics Championships in Bhubaneshwar with a mark of 85.23m -- the best-ever throw recorded in Indian soil.

At the Federation Cup in March this year, he did even better. Although he had already qualified for the Commonwealth Games, he challenged himself and set a new record in Indian soil of 85.94m, in what was his final attempt of the competition.

At the Commonwealth Games, Chopra will be perhaps India's best bet for a gold medal in the athletics events. He is even arguably the favourite. Former Olympic champion Walcott has already withdrawn. Julius Yego, the defending champion, a former world gold medalist and runners up at Rio, would ordinarily have been expected to cruise through, but the Kenyan has been woefully out of form, with a best throw of 73m this year. In contrast, Chopra has consistently thrown well above the 80m mark. He's promised something special for the Commonwealth Games, and it wouldn't be surprising if he manages to do just that.

A gold -- which would be the first won by an Indian javelin thrower at the Commonwealth Games -- could well herald the start of something special. The next step for Chopra would be to eye more consistency at the world level. While his current efforts will be enough to see him make the finals of world-level events, he will need to add another five metres to be pushing for a medal.

Chopra is well on his way to progressing to that level. His throws are far superior than what today's world standard athletes were making at his age. Thomas Rohler, who won the Rio Olympics with a throw of 90.30m, had a best throw of 80.79m when he was Chopra's age. Yego, the Olympic silver medalist and World Champion in 2015, had a personal best of 75.44m back in 2010.

Chopra's training is also falling into place. Having trained without a coach for much of his career, he then had to deal with the setback of Gary Calvert's quitting, under whom he first set the national record. He now trains under former World Record holder Uwe Hohn, but has begun training separately in Germany.

If all goes to plan, at Tokyo in 2020, Chopra could make up for the biggest miss of his career at the biggest stage of them all.