From a distance, they swooned as his red-tailed javelin went well beyond the 80 metre line four times, signalling a dominant gold. From up close, grown Indonesian men walked up to him and gushed to his face calling Neeraj Chopra “handsome, like Shah Rukh Khan from India.” Still buzzing from his unstoppable momentum at the far curve of the GBK stadium, where his series read 83.46, Foul, 88.06, 83.25, 86.36 and Foul, the 20-year-old would take in the compliment with a nod, saying this was the first time he’d heard this Bollywood comparison.
Winning the Asian Games gold – with a national record mark of 88.06 – Chopra had the home spectators smitten, though the only semblance of the hyperactive SRK antics came at the time of the throws. It was Tarzan-meets-the Khan, with his unique javelin-release action that ended in him flinging himself to hurl the spear further than it would if he’d stuck to a cricket bowler’s follow-through. The man flew and fell over right before he could send the pointy spear flying.
For what is such an important part of his catapulting action, Chopra would say it was entirely spontaneous – almost no-holds barred. “Throwing myself forward comes naturally when competing. I don’t do it when I’m training for technique. It just comes in competition when you over-speed,” he would explain, adding that very few javelin throwers ended up landing on all fours namely, world record holder Johannes Vetter and Jan Železný, whose videos Chopra watched when self-teaching as a teen.
Running his fingers through his mane, a few jumps to kick-start his run-up, Chopra would clutch the javelin at the midpoint with a telescope grip and run in pounding on the field. With an almighty torque, he would gain speed and time at his point of release on the block, falling over thereafter and balancing himself, hidden behind the timer board. On the 88.06m throw, he would strike speed, technique and power at the same time, and improve on his own record, a second time this season.
There’s a reason why Chopra is the only Indian track and field athlete to be signed up by Nike Global, getting paid upwards of 50,000 USD each year by the sports major. It’s not just that the big league 90 metre throw is looking increasingly imminent for Chopra, with the Diamond League invites flowing in thick and fast. It’s also his general charisma that piqued the continent’s interest at the opening ceremony, and continued to charm when he picked India’s first Athletics gold.
There are other gold medals – World Juniors and Commonwealth Games (he’s lugging multiple medals around in his suitcase having hardly gone home the last few months) – but he was suitably deferential towards the Asiad medal, never mind the competition that he left behind in his slipstream.
Trained by Uwe Hohn in Finland these last 8-9 months, Chopra had focused on strength training, without really fiddling with his technique. The young champion reckoned it had increased his power by around 15 per cent, while improving on his speed and footwork.
“Expectation was of gold, and distance could’ve been better but the javelin found too much height, so the distance reduced,” he would say. The spear would seem like streaking through the air at the same height as the top bleachers. His busybody technique, with that let-go leap in the end, betrayed him a little when this height ate into how far the javelin could go.
“He’s in shape for throwing 90 metres,” coach Hohn would say, adding that his falling-over technique was natural but he tended to veer to the side because he was going too close to the line.
While a pair of Germans are hurling the monster 90s, Chopra who’s struck consistency and shown he’s hitting the top league soon, doesn’t want to try too hard. “There’s no pressure but I keep trying. Whenever it has to come in a competition, it’ll come. Coach keeps saying ‘keep your straight line, and 90 will come soon’,” he adds, pegging up his goals to the world level moments after lording over Asia.
It had been evident since Throw 1 that Neeraj was peerless in this field. “I thought it was more than 83, but the release was important.”
He’d describe a good throw (“the 88”) as “the body feeling all the power and like a current coursing through the body.” The falling over, though sensational and momentum swelling, runs the risk of hurting the hands. Trying to find the ideal balance between height and distance, he would settle for the 88.09. From a distance, he was well ahead of the pack. From close up, you could see the gleaming gold.