There is very little to write about Neeraj Chopra that hasn’t already been written previously. The javelin thrower arrived in Indonesia as the firm favourite and the flag-bearer of the Indian contingent, an honour bestowed on him at 20 years of age. He took his gold medal with aplomb, with no fuss of last-minute wins, in a competition won by a significant distance, a canter if you may.
This is an Indian athlete who takes the tag of ‘favourite’ and the pressure that comes with it in his stride. There were others in the javelin throw final who had in previous years thrown distances longer than he had, but no one on the start list had more consistent throws this year.
Whisper it softly or shout it out loud: this bloke is not one to crumble in the face of enormous expectations; the latest win will only add more. It is difficult to argue that Neeraj Chopra is not primed to perform on bigger stages.
Over and above his best
It is worth noting that for all the gold that Neeraj has accumulated in his short time on the senior circuit, he hadn’t improved his personal best for 22 months till he bettered his own national record at the Diamond League meet in Doha in May.
Yet, to portray Neeraj’s win and the junior world record attempt at Bydgoszcz as a flash-in-the-pan would have been misleading; here is an athlete who was hovering around his best all the time, landing big throws when it mattered in the glitzy events.
The Commonwealth Games saw him throw 86.47 metres, one centimetre short of his personal best but enough to get him gold. There were six throws of 85-plus this year alone; at the Asian Games, that number became eight.
One gets the feeling that he went for 90 metres on Monday in the Asiad final, a mark that he has stated in the past that he will need to break in order to bag the first Olympic medal in athletics for an Indian in the post-independence era.
Yet, Neeraj refuted this suggestion after his latest win in Jakarta: “I don’t take pressure by setting targets. I had a gold in World Junior Championships, Asian Championship and at the CWG, but this is my biggest medal so far. The World Championship gold was at junior level, so this is big.”
Asian Games record in sight
There was a small shrug of the shoulder after the final throw, which was a foul. It was a tiny expression of disappointment, perhaps at not crossing 90 metres despite the sound bytes to the contrary.
Nevertheless, there was another update to his highest mark tonight – 88.03 metres. 86, 87, 88, the progression is very real and it is steady. The Diamond League final in Zurich could present one final opportunity to improve on that mark this year.
The Asian Games record of 89.15m, set by Zhao Qinggang was in sight. “It was not easy,” Chopra said. “Good throwers had come but they could not perform well. I had prepared well and wanted to create an Asian Games record but the height of javelin was an issue and that is why I could not get the desired distance. But it was still a national record, so I am happy. I will try to better it further.”
Perhaps there was a target in mind after all. There will be other chances to improve on that, form and injury not withstanding.
A couple of steps before 2020
A resume boasting of a World Junior Championships gold, Asian Athletics Championships gold, Commonwealth Games gold and the Asian Games gold is a thing to be prized and treasured. To do it all within two years of his senior career at 20 is remarkable for Chopra and by the standards of Indian athletics.
None other than Milkha Singh was the last Indian to win a Commonwealth and Asian Games gold in the same year. 2018 has also seen Chopra make the Diamond League finals in his maiden year in the competition, more than holding his own against the world’s best.
The only blip starting from the South Asian Games gold in 2016 has come at the World Athletics Championships in 2017 where he failed to qualify for the final, albeit at 19. To prove himself at the world level will be the final check box before the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
It is natural progression for an athlete who has dominated Asia by six metres in the final. The 2019 World Championships and the Diamond League finals will be important markers and stepping stones but his consistency ought to keep him right in the mix.