An audio-to-text transcript of Neeraj Chopra’s interactions since his gold at Tokyo Olympics would have these two words among the most repeated. Easily. Perhaps understandably, too. He has been in uncharted territory for a country of a billion plus people. No one had ever won an athletics Olympic gold from the country in history. A few legends came close to the podium but no one ever really threatened to top it. And so, there is extreme awe but also immense curiosity around Chopra’s achievement and his mentality since then
On Sunday morning Indian time, he had sports fans in India up and early. Watching on, with hope. He has made it possible that we would start a final at the Athletics World Championships – one of the, if not the, toughest events in the sport – expecting a medal, and not just hoping. And hence when he intentionally fouled his first attempt, just about cleared 82m with his second, and managed a decent 86m-plus with his third, it was impossible not to wonder about that word again. And add to that, Anderson Peters was throwing like a dream and two other competitors had already crossed 86m.
Step forth Chopra, for his fourth attempt. “He needs something big here,” said the commentator as he began the run-up. And as he released the javelin, he roared with his chest puffing forward in his follow through. That’s the sign, invariably. Because he knows, quite often, when it comes out well. He liked it. It looked good. It landed at the 88.13m mark. Boom. From outside medal positions, to second in the table.
It would eventually be enough for Neeraj Chopra to become the first Indian athlete ever to win the silver medal at the World Athletics Championships. Once again, he went where no Indian athlete had ever gone before.
Interestingly enough, while sporting a smile of relief, Chopra gestured to the close-up camera to calm down and put up two fingers. It was a reminder to us, and himself, that the job was not over yet. He has been eyeing 90m since the season began, and if he could push himself just for a couple more metres, the gold was still possible. He didn’t want to be content with silver, historic as it would be. A minor discomfort in his right leg, and a major effort by Anderson Peters to go past 90m thrice in six attempts, would mean that he finished second best on the day.
The 24-year-old and his coach spoke a little bit about the wind conditions at the arena posing a unique challenge to him that he had not encountered in his career before and it was tough to adjust. But beyond the physical challenges, the mental one was different too.
Chopra’s best performances at Major events have a pattern to them. Starting from 2018, he has made it a habit to set the pace in the final. Start with a huge throw in the first couple of attempts, let the competitors play catch up.
CWG 2018: Neeraj Chopra’s first attempt was 85.50 m. His best throw of 86.47m came with his 4th attempt but led from the first through the event.
Asian Games 2018: Neeraj Chopra set a new national record back then in Jakarta, which came from his third attempt. But his first attempt would have actually been enough to clinch gold.
Tokyo Olympics: Neeraj Chopra started with 87.03m, and while the memorable 87.58 came off his second attempt, the first throw would have been enough to win gold. Once again, he set the pace.
Stockholm Diamond League: While not a major event per se, Neeraj Chopra’s current national record of 89.94m in Sweden last month, also came with his first attempt. Peters would eventually just shade it.
And so when the first try was a foul and the pace was being set by three others going by past 86m, Chopra found himself in new territory. He was chasing. He was trying to catch up. He had to problem solve in conditions that made him uncomfortable.
“Mere dimag mein ek baar bhi iss cheez ka pressure nahi tha ki mein Olympics champion hoon (I never had the pressure of being an Olympic champion),” Neeraj said in the media interaction later on.
“Since you are asking me now, I am telling you about it. But it didn’t come inside my head even once that I am Olympic champion so I have to win the World Championship as well. The only thing in my mind that I felt was that I need to make one good throw today. Yes it was challenging that I was not in medal positions. Phir bhi kahin na kahin khud pe belief tha ki kar lenge, last tak (I still believed I can do it before the end).”
“It is of course an advantage if you are able to throw well at the start and compete with a free mind after that,” he said about this new challenge. “But if it doesn’t happen early, then it is important to remain focussed. I always tell myself to ‘keep the focus till the last attempt. Anyone can go beyond your mark anytime, so drag yourself to the end’. That was the only thing in my mind, it was challenging for sure that I didn’t start well. But I was able to get that one good throw out.”
This question was posed to Chopra before the event as well. Whether he and his team saw any patterns in his competitions that his best comes at the start. While the question was more out a statistical curiosity, he didn’t see it that way. His response was strong and immediate, that no, he doesn’t feel he keeps his best for the start. Yes, his big medals have come in such a manner, but that is not the way he approaches his events.
“I want to give my best from the very first attempt, but I also know I have to stay focussed till the end,” he had said, citing the examples of Asian Championships and a Federation Cup effort, where he set a national record in windy conditions. “I never want to think that pehle maar do, last mein relaxed chod do (Go big early and then be relaxed towards the end).”
And that is exactly the sort of situation he found himself in in the finals. It is one thing to believe it, and completely another to prove it on the field. And the 88.13m that Chopra managed under all sorts of physical and mental pressure was testament to the fact that the champion athlete walks the talk.
Mind you, that was his career’s fourth best throw... with the top four all coming since he returned to action this season in June.
With the silver, he completed his collection of medals from major events. From South Asian Games and U20 Worlds in 2016, to the senior World Championships in 2022... “Yeah, all those were gold, but this is silver,” he said. “So there is a hunger inside to change the colour of the medal at the upcoming World Championships. But happy to have completed the collection, one more title I rate highly is the Diamond League. Happy now that a long wait for a medal here is over.”