As the athletes were introduced for javelin throw (women, followed by men) at Letzigrund Stadium in Zurich on Thursday night, the cheers rang loud when the last name was called out. The Olympic champion from India, Neeraj Chopra folded his hands and took a bow as the camera panned to fans in the stands holding up “N E E R A J, G O” lettering placards.
Overcoming a bit of a sluggish start, Neeraj Chopra would soon go on to become the first Indian ever to win the Diamond Trophy that’s handed to the Diamond League champion of an athletics season. Another chapter added to a book that is quickly filling with milestone moments in Indian athletics.
And, in a sight now familiar, he knew the moment the javelin left his hand for the second attempt, that he found a good throw.
The support he received was not lost on Neeraj.
“Felt really good, aaj aisa feel hua ki hum bhi global athletics ka ek hissa hain (I really felt tonight that I am a part of the global athletics fraternity too), and that I too can make fans happy seeing me perform,” he said after the season came to a close with a glitzy parade of the champions.
“They supported me a lot, bahut hi maza aaya sach mein. There were quite a few Indian fans, and locals too... crowd helped for sure, and my throws were consistent and the competition was really good for me.”
The night saw Neeraj win a trophy that he has coveted for a while. It was his third appearance in the season finale of Diamond League in Zurich and after having finished seventh in 2017 and fourth in 2018, he was the favourite on the night in 2022. His biggest rival on tour, one of only two men to have defeated him in events since Tokyo last year, Anderson Peters was absent. Among the field of final six, Neeraj and Tokyo silver medallist Jakub Vadlejch were always going to compete for the top two spots and the Indian had the edge in recent meetings over the Czech athlete who has a 90+ personal best.
“I feel very good tonight because it is my first Diamond League win and it is in front of my family... my uncle was here, my friends were also here for the first time in a competition. I feel very good to win this trophy in front of them. The spectators were very good today, they support me to throw well,” Neeraj added in the interview on Diamond League virtual mixed zone, still looking fresh and sporting a smile late into the night in Zurich and well beyond midnight in India.
One of those spectators who was watching from the stands was Vishnu Prabhakaran, a mechanical engineer who is in Germany for work.
“Knowing that Neeraj was in the Diamond League final, I was very eager to see him in action at Zurich,” Vishnu told Scroll.in after the event ended. “After managing to grab a place just behind the javelin competition area, I was waiting for his event to start and when clock ticked around 7.35pm local time, the crowd went electric, cheering and welcoming the men and women javelin throwers.”
Having thrown an unforgettable 87.58m to win the Olympic Games gold medal in front of stands bereft of fans in Tokyo, the World Championships at Eugene and now the Diamond League Final in Zurich have seen Neeraj soak up the adulation from his ever increasing fan base.
“I even saw Neeraj acknowledging the Indian crowd before his event,” Vishnu added.
“The night was electrifying and appreciative of all the Javelin throwers and there was a good number of Indian fans who cheered for him with tricolour. Many others too joined to celebrate each attempt and there were Vadlejch fans even discussing how Neeraj managed to throw his attempts effortlessly and consistently. I am not exaggerating but in the end, he was the athlete whom many fans thronged to get autographs and selfies. It was truly an unforgettable memory for me to witness all this.”
For Neeraj Chopra, if 2021 was pathbreaking, 2022 has seen him take his level a notch higher. He has now produced the six best throws of his career this year, bettering his 87.58m from Tokyo repeatedly, and setting a new national record in Stockholm with 89.94m. While there are many highlights to choose from, including the best finish by an Indian at World Championships, Zurich will have a special place in his heart as he delivered in front of some special people. His youngest uncle Surender Kumar (the man who forced him to take up sport/fitness as a kid) was among those in attendance.
“Honestly, I don’t know [about the highlight of the season] but what I felt good most of all about entire season was my consistency. Koi baat nahi, 90m nahi lagi, woh ek mark hai aur uske liye pressure nahi le raha hoon (It’s alright I did not cross 90m and it is just a mark that I am not taking any undue pressure for). At almost all events we were able to win a medal or finish in a high position. But also to be honest, the fact that my uncle was here who introduced me to sports and friends who I started my javelin journey with, winning tonight was a little special,” Neeraj said.
“The warm-up throws went well but the start of the event was not good. The javelin slipped out a little bit from my hand. The second throw felt good, and I was able to focus on the task. Wasn’t nervous [to perform in front of my family] as I used to be, now I have the experience of the global events.”
One of the coolest images at Weltklasse Zürich is when the Diamond League Champions assemble on the stage after all events are done. On Thursday night, with a song titled Diamonds are Forever being performed at the venue, the champions gathered once more, at the end (for most) of a long season that put their bodies through the wringer.
There were Olympic champions, world record holders, all-time greats of track and field. To name a few... Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. Mondo Duplantis. Shericka Jackson. Gianmarco Tamberi. Yulimar Rojas. Femke Bol. Noah Lyles. Jakob Ingebrigtsen. Yaroslava Mahuchikh. Valarie Allman. Alison Dos Santos.
And alongside them stood India’s very own Neeraj Chopra. The Olympic gold medallist with the Diamond Trophy held aloft.