World Athletics Championships: Olympic champion Neeraj Chopra now world champ

Every time Neeraj Chopra starts galloping from the top of the runway with a javelin in his hand there’s a sense of inevitability. That he will medal. He had won almost every medal that mattered when he reached Budapest for the World Championship final.

On Sunday night at the National Athletics Centre, Chopra, 24, added the coveted medal missing from his collection – the World Championship gold, his second after last year’s silver. Chopra’s winning throw was measured at 88.17 metres, not even in his top 5 best. Yet, what makes him a special athlete is his innate ability to gauge the conditions and do enough to medal. This time a gold at the Worlds to go with his Olympic gold.

On the night it was Pakistan’s Arshad Nadeem who went closest to challenging Chopra. Nadeem won the Commonwealth Games gold with a 90-metre plus throw. Nadeem started slowly with 74.80 metres, moved to 82.18 and then came up with his best of 87.82 to move into second place. Nadeem is more of a physical thrower so there was a danger of a late burst from him. But it was not to be. Making it a great day for Indian javelin was Kishore Jena’s (84.77 metres) fifth place finish and DP Manu’s (84.14) sixth place. Czech Republic’s Jakub Vadlejch won the bronze with 86.67 metres.

Chopra had a no mark in the first round, but bounced back like only he can. Wearing a white headband to keep his hair from falling into his eyes, Chopra smoothly released what was to be his best throw of the evening in round 2. Even before the javelin landed, Chopra turned around, faced the crowd and raised his arms in the air. A trademark celebration that is a sure shot sign of a big throw from the Indian. He embraced the pressure, didn’t look hassled and as he does so often produced his best when he needed it the most.

Over the years, investing emotions in Chopra’s success is even more tension-free than locking one’s savings in gold. That is due to his almost-unbelievable consistency, a rare quality in Indian athletes.

Numbers don’t always define greats, but they do tell a story. Chopra’s is staggering. He isn’t satisfied with one big performance, however impressive it may be, and backs it up with another time after time.

Freedom Sale

Consider this: Chopra’s historic gold-medal winning distance of 87.58 metres at the Tokyo Olympics two years ago is not among his top 10 throws.

Nine of his 10 best throws have come after the Summer Games. Of these, 89.94m is the best and 88.13m the shortest. In his career, Chopra has thrown over 88 metres 10 times, over 85 metres 26 times and over 82 metres 37 times. These numbers make consistency his middle name, something not always seen in Indian athletics littered with examples of stars failing to live up to the expectations on the global stage. The last time Chopra didn’t finish in the top three of a competition was nearly five years ago.

Come rain or shine or even a niggle, Chopra knows how to find the flight path to success. He started the year with his fifth-best throw ever, 88.67m to top the Doha Diamond League event. Despite not being at 100 percent during his comeback event, the Lausanne Diamond League, Chopra managed 87.66 metres. In the qualifying round for the Budapest World Championships, Chopra’s ‘easy throw’ was measured at 88.7m, his fourth-best throw ever. What makes Chopra so good? Consistency in technique is one aspect.

“Other athletes are inconsistent in technique, but Chopra is more consistent and consistency is a great base for a thrower,” his coach Klaus Bartonietz had told this paper.

Chopra’s athleticism makes him a very flexible thrower, which means outright power is not his calling card, like Pakistan’s Arshad Nadeem or Germany’s Johannes Vetter. The Indian ace is also blessed with elasticity, is an all-round athlete and good at sprinting, jumping and lifting. Even decathlon could have been a good career choice for the javelin star.

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Another standout Chopra virtue is self-belief. When a competition begins, his physio Ishaan Marwaha says that Chopra switches on the ‘Neeraj Chopra Inside the Stadium’ button. “He is a different guy when he goes inside the stadium,” Marwaha had said about how the Olympic champion enters ‘the zone’. With his golden arm, Chopra has inspired a generation of Indian throwers to dream big. What was considered impossible earlier is being seen as doable.

Rohit Yadav, 22, is part of a growing club of 80m-plus javelin throwers in India. He has a personal best of 83.40m. Rohit has trained overseas alongside Chopra since 2019 and says the latter’s success is rubbing off on him and other upcoming throwers. Rohit would have been at the Worlds if not for an elbow injury, which needed surgery.

“When you train next to someone like Chopra who is consistent with the big throws, you believe you can do it too. I have closely seen him train and the hard work he puts in. All the big throws are a result of the way he prepares and also the experience he has gained from competing abroad. I am inspired by the way he has performed in the big competitions. He isn’t an athlete who has one big throw and then the level drops. The overall quality of Indian javelin throw has improved because of him,” Rohit said. Samarjeet Singh, javelin coach at the national camp, remembers how everyone was talking about Chopra being a talented thrower when he broke the inter-university record in 2009. “I threw 75 metres and it was a big deal back then. I used to search for videos of foreign throwers and while watching them would wonder how they throw 82-85m-plus throws. Eighty metres used to be a huge mental barrier in India. Now we have a champion thrower.”

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