When a 19 year old Arshad Nadeem came in a bus from Lahore to Amritsar in 2016, he would kickstart a relationship with an Indian teenager Neeraj Chopra that has bloomed now into this beautiful friendly rivalry – and which promises to spiral into something even more epic in the years to come. Neeraj has the Olympic Gold, Arshad, who came second best to Neeraj all these years, has not only the Commonwealth Games gold but importantly has breached that 90m barrier that both were spearing for. Arshad is 25, Neeraj will get there in four months time – and a lifetime, or so it seems, of battles lies ahead.
In 2016, just after Asian Games in Jakarta, Nadeem had spoken about being inspired by Neeraj and shared his wish that one day, “maybe beat him too”. That is yet to happen in a direct competition between the two but the man from Mian Channu, a town known for its wheat and cotton production, has taken the lead over the man from Khandra village native Neeraj with his 90.18 m throw at CWG.
An Indian and Pakistani, hyphenated yet again in sports. Milkha Singh-Abdul Khaliq, Mohammad Shahid-Hasan Sardar, Sunil Gavaskar-Javed Miandad, Virat Kohli-Babar Azam (though their peaks haven’t really matched together yet), and now Chopra-Nadeem.
Well done youngman…
Incredible scenes in the men's javelin throw final!
Pakistan's Arshad Nadeem wins gold with a throw of 90.18 – a games record and his personal best 🔥
Anderson Peters – who beat Neeraj Chopra at the Worlds – is second with 88.64.
Pakistan 🇵🇰 Zinda Abad pic.twitter.com/cGKpLjw7Ph
— Sahibzada Hamid Raza (@_SahibzadaHamid) August 8, 2022
2016: The first meeting
In 2016, Nadeem had come to Guwahati for the South Asian Games and would be floored by the hospitality. “It was a memorable trip. We came to Amritsar from Lahore by road. Aap log badi khatir aur izzat karte ho (you people are great hosts, give a lot of respect). I would love to compete in India again,” Nadeem would later recall that trip.
During that sojourn in the North Eastern state, he would also begin his battle with Neeraj, who would win the gold with a throw of 82.23, leaving Nadeem to collect bronze with 78.33. A relationship started to bloom.
They would face again at the Asian Junior Championships in Vietnam, Chopra claiming silver with 77.60 and Nadeem the bronze with 73.40. Then came the World U-20 Championship in Poland where Neeraj would surge ahead, winning the tournament with a new under-20 record at 86.48. Nadeem didn’t have a great outing there, finishing 15th with 67.17.
Incidentally Nadeem competed in only these three tournaments of international standards in that period, while Neeraj Chopra competed in ten tournaments, crossing the 80m twice. The same 80 m that Indian Ramandeep Singh would regularly cross in his days and captivated the imagination of his friend and Asian medallist the Pakistani Syed Hussain Bukhari who would eventually coach Nadeem.
2017: The meeting in Bhubaneshwar
Chopra would clock in 11 international competitions, crossing the 85 mark once while Nadeem competed in three of similar standard. Both would directly compete once at the Asian Athletics Championships in Bhubaneshwar with Neeraj taking the gold with 85.23, while Nadeem finished seventh with 78.0 m throw.
2018: “He doesn’t reply to my WhatsApp messages!”
The relationship had moved to the next level now, with enough familiarity and friendship for Nadeem to complain in jest about Neeraj’s silence on WhatsApp!
“Neeraj bhai jawab hi nahi dete (doesn’t reply!) He has done it only a couple of times and after that he stopped. Maybe he is busy,” before he slipped in a genuine compliment about Neeraj’s throws, “He has got a great technique.”
They had competed twice in this year at Gold Coast CWG in Australia and Asian Games in Jakarta. Chopra took the gold at the CWG with 86.47m while Nadeem finished eight in the final with a throw of 76.02m. At Jakarta, Neeraj pocketed the gold again with a new national record throw of 88.06 and Nadeem too did well with a bronze with a throw of 80.75m.
Both would speak about each other possibly for the first time after the tourney at Jakarta. Neeraj would also call Nadeem for a photo with both holding aloft their respective national flags.
“Neeraj is an amazing talent. I have competed with him about eight times [five times actually] now including SAF Games and Asian Junior Championships in India. But he has a foreign coach and I don’t. His achievement inspires me and my goal is to emulate him one day, maybe beat him too,” Nadeem would say in Jakarta.
2021: The Olympics gold and a small needless controversy!
Injuries and then the pandemic meant the duo would compete next at the Tokyo Olympics. Neeraj Chopra topped Group A with a throw of 86.65m and Nadeem topped Group B with 85.16m. A buzz about a possible medal clash loomed in the final, but Neeraj would of course take the gold with a 87.58m throw and Nadeem took the fifth spot with 84.62.
A controversy broke out just days later when Neeraj would talk about the last-minute chaos before his throw when he couldn’t locate his javelin and that he found it with Nadeem. Vicious trolling of the Pakistani began, but Neeraj quickly doused it by releasing a video, defending Nadeem.
“I would request everyone to please don’t use me and my comments as a medium to further your vested interest and propaganda. Sports teaches us to be together and united. I am extremely disappointed to see some of the reactions from the public on my recent comments, “ Chopra had to tweet.
Nadeem would later tell The Indian Express, “Neeraj bhai ne bilkul theek kaha hai, Hum dono bahut acche dost hain aur aisi cheezen nahi honi chahiye.” (Neeraj said the right thing, we are both good friends and these controversies shouldn’t happen).
2022: Nadeem’s moment under sun in some style
Neeraj Chopra had won his Olympic gold on August 7 and would tweet how that day changed his life. On the same day, a year later, Nadeem’s life would similarly transform. He would become the first Asian to breach the 90m barrier, and take the CWG Gold.
Asked if he would speak to Neeraj after the win, Nadeem would say, “Kyun nahi? (Why not), and add “I missed him in the competition here. Mashallah, he is a very good friend. Injury is part of the game. Inshallah Alla tallah unko bhi sehat de, woh hote toh aur bhi maza ata ( May god grant him good health, if he was here, there would have been more fun). I wish him good luck for the next competition and we have fun together in future competitions), Nadeem said.
This year, thus far, both competed only once together at the World Athletics Championship in the US. Prior to the world championships, Chopra would create a national record with a throw of 89.94m in Sweden. Chopra would win the silver medal at Eugene with a throw of 88.13m while Nadeem finished fifth with a throw of 86.16m.
Chopra would share his post-final chat with Arshad. “I spoke to Arshad after the competition. I told him that he did very well. He replied that he had issues with his elbow. I further congratulated him for a great throw and it was a great comeback from his injury and it was commendable that he threw the javelin over 86 metres.” Now, Nadeem has thrown the gauntlet at Neeraj by breaching the 90m barrier. Time will tell what lies next in the lives of these two supreme athletes. History is calling, and both seem to be all ears.