Javelin star Neeraj Chopra became the toast of India on Saturday after winning the country’s first Olympic athletics gold medal, inspiring politicians and staid cricket legends into celebratory dances.
Hundreds gathered outside Chopra’s family home in the village of Khandra in Haryana state to witness the 87.58 metres throw in Tokyo that secured the landmark title.
Chopra’s uncles and other relatives gave television interviews about the 23-year-old’s rise to global fame.
Chopra has come a long way from being a chubby 12-year-old teased by his friends to an overnight hero for the nation of 1.3 billion people.
Fireworks erupted in some Indian cities and street traders handed out cakes and sweets to celebrate the end of an agonising wait for recognition on the athletics track.
“What a throw, he is a hero. We will cherish this moment forever,” Ahmed Ali, a university student who watched the javelin competition at a New Delhi tea stall, said.
“At last we have someone other than our cricket stars. His photo will surely soon be up on hostel walls.”
The farmer’s son and Indian army officer for once sidelined India’s cricket stars who are playing the first Test against England in Nottingham.
Former India captain Sunil Gavaskar, 72, celebrated the moment on TV with his arms raised, singing a popular Bollywood song during a break in commentating on the Indian game.
One Haryana state minister, Anil Vij danced in front of TV cameras after Chopra’s gold and became an instant social media hit.
Prime Minister Narenrda Modi said Chopra’s achievement will be “remembered forever” while sports minister Anurag Thakur called him a “Golden Boy”.
Shooter Abhinav Bindra – 10m air rifle champion in Beijing in 2008 – the only other Indian to have won an individual Olympic gold also paid tribute.
“You have fulfilled a nation’s dream. Thank you! Also, welcome to the club – a much needed addition,” Bindra said on Twitter.
Chopra led India to their best-ever haul in the Olympics with a gold, two silvers and six bronze medals.
His feat ended a 121-year wait for an athletics gold. The previous best had been two silver medals won at the 1900 Paris Games when India was a British colony.
Bollywood music also boomed out in the Tokyo stadium after Chopra’s sixth and final throw, in recognition of his victory.
He sprinted the length of the infield, an Indian flag fluttering over his shoulders. “It feels unbelievable,” Chopra said. “It is a proud moment for me and my country.”
“In the qualification round I threw very well so I knew I could do better in the final. I didn’t know it would be gold, but I am very happy.”