TOKYO (AP) — Neeraj Chopra held a corner of the India flag in each hand and raised it over his head.
A half-hour later, the tri-color was flying at the top of the mast at Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium and Chopra was standing atop the medal podium, feeling on top of the world.
A first gold medal in Olympic track and field for a nation of 1.3 billion, its first in any sports since a shooting title in 2008, had to be cause for celebration.
Chopra won the javelin title at the Tokyo Games with a personal-best throw of 87.58 meters on Saturday night, securing the title with a throw to spare.
“It feels unbelievable,” he said. “This is our first Olympic medal for a very long time, and in athletics it is the first time we have gold, so it’s a proud moment for me and my country.”
India’s only previous medals in Olympic track and field were two silvers won by Norman Pritchard in the 200 meters and the 200-meter hurdles at Paris in 1900.
Historians have debated whether the results for Pritchard should be recorded for India or Britain. He was born in India to a British colonial family, moved to London before qualifying for the Paris Olympics and later moved to the U.S. and embarked on an acting career.
There’s no disputing this one.
Chopra, a junior officer in the Indian army with the Rajputana Rifles, made his first mark on international athletics with a world junior title in 2016. Two years later, he became the first Indian athlete to win the javelin at the Asian Games and at the Commonwealth Games.
He set a new benchmark in Tokyo, holding off Jakub Vadlejch (86.67) and Vitezslav Vesely (85.44), both of the Czech Republic.
India has won eight Olympic gold medals in field hockey, more than any other nation, and the return of the men’s team to the medal podium at the Tokyo Games — a bronze — after a 41-year drought prompted widespread celebrations.
A first gold medal in track and field is set to make Chopra a star in India.
It didn’t take long before the rewards started flowing in and he was on the phone with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Cricket is the all-consuming sport in India, and all of its powerbrokers were watching.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India quickly announced a cash reward for the Olympic medal winners. Military leaders chimed in, too.
Chopra was ranked fourth heading into the Olympics and had some issues with his technique in the hot and steamy conditions.
“But in my second throw I feel it’s my PB,” he said. “Finally I’m an Olympic champion.”
He knew there’d be plenty of sports fans watching on TV at home, flicking between India’s cricket test match in England and the Olympics.
“So proud moment for India and for me because they’re supporting me a lot,” said Chopra, the son of a farming family. “Today they’re all in front of the TV and they’re supporting me — so thank you India.”
Former world champion Johannes Vetter of Germany was favored to win, but placed ninth after the first three attempts and was out of contention early. He had praise for Chopra.
“He’s a really talented guy, always really friendly,” Vetter said. “I’m happy for him.”
Chopra said he’d given everything he had in the competition.
“I hope after me India can win more medals in athletics,” he said. “I don’t have anything left — I gave my 100% on the field.”