For India’s top javelin thrower, Neeraj Chopra, an Olympic medal is within range.
His personal best throw of 88.03 m achieved at the 2018 Asian Games, would have won him a medal at every Olympic Games in history barring one.
But with uncertainty surrounding the Tokyo Olympics due to the Covid-19 pandemic, several dreams are on hold, including that of Chopra.
Still just 23, this won’t be the last chance he will get to win an Olympic medal, but for the talent at his disposal, he could have already had one.
Chopra missed the Rio Olympics in 2016 as he couldn’t cross the 83 m qualification mark in time. He managed it at the junior World Championships when he threw 86.48 m, creating a new junior world record, but it came ten days after the cut-off mark for the 2016 Games. As it turned out, the throw at the junior Worlds would have been enough to bag him a bronze medal in Rio.
Four years on, Chopra, a Commonwealth and Asian Games gold medalist, is the country’s brightest medal prospect, and for good reason. Despite sitting out the entire 2019 with an injury, Chopra returned to action in January 2020 and qualified for the Tokyo Games in the very first competition back with a throw of 87.86 m.
So with the Tokyo Games postponed by a year and now under doubt, Chopra is a worried man.
“If Olympics don’t happen, it will be hard to take,” Chopra told reporters during an online interaction on Saturday.
“In Rio, I missed the cut by ten days, and would have won a medal had I qualified. Even last year when I qualified for Tokyo I had a really good feeling about a medal. So if Olympics doesn’t happen this year, I would feel I lost out on chances to win two medals. It would be very sad,” he added.
Lack of clarity hampering approach
Even though Chopra has been training initially at the National Institute of Sport in Patiala and later at the camp at Bhubaneswar, lack of clarity on the Olympics has hampered the mental thought process of the throwers.
“There is a bit of confusion around the Olympics as we keep receiving contrasting news about it. We feel it will be better if there’s clarity as with a clear target in front of us, the motivation would instantly double. With the uncertainty, it has become difficult to find the motivation to put in that extra effort,” Chopra said.
Chopra’s plans have been further hampered by the cancellation of his visit to South Africa for training due to the new strain of Covid-19 in the country. There are no alternative opportunities to train in other countries partly due to the pandemic and secondly due to the extreme cold climate in most of these places.
The only ray of hope for the Olympic-bound javelin thrower is the Indian Grand Prix that is scheduled by the AFI from February 18.
For Chopra, who is still in the preparatory stage of the training, that event may come too soon. A return at the Federation Cup that could be held in mid-March is much more a possibility. Once the summer sets in, he would have better opportunities to train abroad, especially in Europe.
The 23-year-old is targetting stepping up participation in competitions since May, but would need to be selective about it to properly prepare for the Games.
“If the Olympics go ahead, I would have to opt for top-level international events to prepare as consistent performances in those events is the only way to be ready for an event of such magnitude. Mid-level events may not work. So I would have to opt for quality over quantity,” he said.
Focus on technique
Currently, Chopra is focusing all his energies on his strength training and getting his technique right.
“In the Continental Cup, my javelin release was drifting towards the left side and in one competition it also went out of the sector. So my effort has been focussed on my release so that I throw in the right direction and there are no fouls,” Chopra said.
“Apart from that, I’ve been doing strength training, working especially on core strength. The preparation has been good and we will slowly step it up,” he added.
The fine-tuning of his technique has so far taken a front seat over the actual distance on the throws as Chopra has only been attempting throws upto a distance of 75 m. He will work on the distances only when he decides on a schedule of the competitions he is taking part in.
A change in javelin type has also been on Chopra’s mind for the past year. A switch from Nemeth javelin to a Nordic javelin is on the cards for the 23-year-old. He has so far used the Nemeth variant but he is looking to opt for Nordic one that is made of carbon in future competitions.
“It requires a lot of work to get the line and direction right on a Nordic javelin, but once your perfect the line, it can go further than a Nemeth one. So I will be hoping to use a Nordic javelin in a few competitions,” Chopra said.
For Chopra, the talent, the preparation and the clarity of thought are all there but the fate of his Olympic dream remains out of his hands.
As a cloud of uncertainty prevails over the Tokyo Games, he is left seeking a silver lining.
“Our job as athletes is to work hard and we have to continue doing that. We can’t just give up and stop working, thinking that the Olympics won’t happen. I believe I can win a medal if it does so I am doing everything to put my best foot forward and hoping it works well in the end,” Chopra said.