Star javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra kept India's hopes of an elusive Olympics medal from track and field alive by earning direct qualification into the final with a stunning throw of 86.65 metres that saw him finish on the top of Group A and B, in Tokyo, on Wednesday.
Competing in his first Olympics, the 23-year-old needed just a few seconds to make it to the final round, to be held on Saturday, sending the spear well past the qualifying mark of 83.50 metres with his first throw.
Shivpal Singh, the other Indian in the fray, failed to make it through from Group B later in the day.
In his first throw Shivpal attained a distance of 76.40 metres. His next throw was 74.80m, less than the first. A distance of 76.40m in his third attempt was not enough to get him to the final. He placed 12th in Group B, which had 16 contenders.
Chopra's performance will go down as one of the best by an Indian at the Olympics, as he finished ahead of gold medal favourite and 2017 World champion Johannes Vetter of Germany.
Vetter, who had earlier said Chopra will find it tough to beat him in the Tokyo Games, struggled with his first two throws before attaining the automatic qualification mark with a 85.64 metres final throw.
The 28-year-old towering German, who came into the Tokyo Olympics after having seven monster throws of 90m-plus between April and June, was lying in seventh position after his first two throws but eventually qualified for the final in second place.
Finland's Lassi Etelatalo also advanced to the final as an automatic qualifier with a first round throw of 84.50 metres.
Those who attained the 83.50 metres mark, or the 12 best performers, qualified for Saturday’s final.
A farmer's son from Khandra village near Panipat in Haryana, who took up athletics to shed flab on his body, Chopra left the Olympic Stadium arena after his first throw, having secured his place in the final easily.
The Indian athletics contingent, including Athletics Federation of India president Adille Sumariwalla and Klaus Bartonietz, the bio-mechanics expert in charge of Chopra, cheered from the almost empty stands.
This was Chopra's seventh best throw and third best of the 2021 season.
His earlier six best throws are 88.07m (March 2021; Indian GP-3), 88.06m (2018, Asian Games), 87.87m (January 2020; ACNW Meeting in South Africa), 87.80m (March 2021; Federation Cup), 87.43m (May 2018, Doha Diamond League) and 86.79 (June 2021; Kuortane Games in Finland).
The reigning Asian Games and Commonwealth Games gold medallist was short on preparation in the run-up to the Olympics, with just three international events, out of which only one had a top-class field -- Kuortane Games -- where Vetter took the gold and he finished third.