India is an underachiever in sport. The world’s most populous country and fifth largest economy could do better. True, it no longer is a single-sport nation, but it has a long way to go: look at countries like Australia, closer home China or Japan, not to mention the US or Great Britain.

India has never played at the football World Cup. It has never produced a Grand Slam singles finalist in tennis. Until three years ago, you could have also said that it never won an athletics medal at the Olympics. But Neeraj Chopra intervened. He threw the Olympic gold down at Tokyo with his javelin on August 7, 2021.

Norris Pritam’s Neeraj Chopra: The Man Who Made History is a detailed account of that extraordinary feat. It isn’t the first book on the golden boy of Indian athletics, but that doesn’t make Pritam’s less significant.

And there aren’t many authors who could have written on Neeraj with more insight. Not merely is Pritam a veteran sports journalist who has covered multiple Olympics — though unfortunately not the one at Tokyo — he has been a former long-distance runner and has followed Indian athletics with a keen eye, from up close, for decades.

Poor state of Indian athletics

Neeraj Chopra: The Man Who Made History works also because of the insights Pritam provides into the poor state Indian athletics had been in for so long before the golden dawn in Tokyo (much work has to be done still to ensure that it would be no false dawn). India perhaps could have attained an Olympic medal long before Neeraj, through the likes of Milkha Singh, Sriram Singh or PT Usha, if they had more support. Pritam speaks of how TC Yohannan and Suresh Babu, two gifted long jumpers from Kerala, had to invent crude methods for training. They made use of ropes, ceiling fans, bricks and the flat’s windows to come up with their own crude equipment for training. Mind you, both were gold-medallists at the Asian Games and competed at the Olympics.

Indian athletics has come a long way from those days, when Sriram’s coach, Mohammad Ilyas Babar, with whom Pritam used to run in Delhi, went to Montreal in 1976 with the ticket bought by his friends, to watch his ward getting an explosive start in the 800m final before finishing seventh: a performance like that would be a triumph for India even now.

Pritam, by writing in some detail about the past of Indian athletics, has put Neeraj’s achievement in the right perspective. Thanks to the understandably extensive coverage of the athlete in the media especially after his triumph in Tokyo, much of his remarkably story may already be known, but his fascinating journey that began in a house at Khandra, a village in Haryana, with the intention of losing his baby fat through some physical activity, is worth retelling. Pritam’s interviews with Neeraj’s family members and the man himself help.

The author has also given some well-deserved space to JSW Sports, which has played a key role in the development of Neeraj as an athlete. It is doubtful whether he would have achieved as much as he has, for all his talent, without the total support he received from the conglomerate. JSW’s involvement will help the reader know how much effort and planning go into the making of a world-class athlete, especially in a country like India that cannot boast of a great sporting tradition.

The book could have been better, though. There are some repetitions that could have been avoided. And one is not so sure if an athlete is to be lauded for his good fortune for getting a government job.

You also wish the author had told the reader what exactly was wrong with former national champion in javelin-throw Razia Sheikh, more than what appeared in a newspaper, about her having to live in obscurity.

Title: Neeraj Chopra: The Man Who Made History

Author: Norris Pritam

Publisher: Bloomsbury India

Price: ₹271

Check out the book on Amazon here