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Monday, Sep 26, 2022

Not his usual one-and-done jobs. Neeraj Chopra had to dig deep to dig out silver at World Championships

At half-way mark, forget gold, the question was would Chopra even medal? He stirred to produce a dreamy throw to make history. His CV now reads: Gold at the junior World championships, gold at the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, the historic Olympic gold and now the World Championship silver.

Athletics - World Athletics Championships - Men's Javelin Throw - Final - Hayward Field, Eugene, Oregon, U.S. - July 23, 2022 India's Neeraj Chopra reacts during the final REUTERS/Brian Snyder

He made the fans chew their nails in stressful fits on Sunday morning halfway across the world from Eugene. A country that had won just one medal in three decades of the World Championships was dreaming of gold in the men’s javelin at the World Championships. But Neeraj Chopra was having a rare off day in a big final.

For about an hour, which seemed like a full long day, Chopra kept everyone waiting. It wasn’t his usual one-and-done routine. Not the start-to-finish victory march like at the Olympics, the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. Suddenly, it hit: forget gold, was Chopra even going to medal?

After Round 2, Chopra was in fourth place. Anderson Peters, the defending champion, had opened with a 90.54 metres. Chopra would have to better his personal best and break the 90m barrier to add the World Championship gold to his Olympic gold.

Chopra, who had fouled his first round throw, threw a 82.39m in his second. In his third attempt, he registered 86.37 metres. Czech Republic’s Jakub Vadlejch and German’s Julian Webber were in provisional 2nd and 3rd places at that stage.

Chopra has never had to play catch up in recent years or deal with the predicament of fighting for a podium place. Chopra was facing the biggest test since becoming India’s only track and field medalist at the Olympic Games.

Those in his inner circle would not have given up hope. The 24-year-old switches on what they call ‘The Neeraj Chopra in the stadium button’. Chopra enters the rarified space called the zone once he is at the throwing arena his physio Ishaan Marwaha says. In the zone, in the flow, in a bubble. Now, he rarely even glanced at his coach Dr Klaus Bartonietz. The German biomechanics expert was expressionless at the halfway stage.

Chopra was yet to let out his trademark roar. Forget dreams of breaching the 90 metre barrier, even 88 was eluding him despite all his experience and talent. The commentators started to talk about his extended celebrations in India after the Olympics. They quoted him saying how he wasn’t in his best shape. He had one thing in his armoury, though: The faster arm speed. Could he rev it up now?

Just three attempts left now. The Pakistani Arshad Nadeem produces a stunner to move one spot behind Chopra.

In his fourth attempt the legs, hips, shoulder, blocking leg and throwing arm combined to help Chopra throw the 800 gram spear to 88.13 metres. Above all it was his mental strength to fight back to win a World Championship silver that stood out.

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Gold medalist Anderson Peters, of Grenada, center, stands with silver medalist Neeraj Chopra, of India, left, and bronze medalist Jakub Vadlejch, of the Czech Republic, during a medal ceremony for the men’s javelin throw final at the World Athletics Championships. (AP)

Hard work in the off season too paid off. Chopra is not an outright power thrower but relies on flexibility. He has improved his block (landing of leading leg before release), upped his arm speed, improved hip mobility and added to his ankle strength. The result is a finer technique and in turn more energy to sustain him through the six rounds.

“In the initial competitions he used to get tired very fast. This year he is not as exhausted as before (at the end of a competition). The reason for that is his throw is more efficient and his body flows well,” physiotherapist Ishaan Marwaha told The Indian Express.

Peters produced three 90-metre throws in the final, the best a 90.54 in round 6. Chopra had enough in the tank to fight his way to a second place finish in the fourth round.

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He broke into a smile as the cameras focussed on him but gestured with his hands to the millions watching on TV to not celebrate too early. He walked away with a silver but for a country used to returning empty handed, his right arm is still golden.

The country’s obsession with finding the next Neeraj Chopra will weigh heavy on the shoulders of the next generation of throwers. But that search is still a few years away. For now there is nobody like Chopra in Indian sport.

Neeraj Chopra, of India, competes in the men’s javelin throw final at the World Athletics Championships. (AP)

Indians were googling crossover steps, block, arm speed, weight of the javelin when Chopra turned the javelin throw into a national obsession by winning the Olympic gold. Now the country is full of armchair experts and this number of self-proclaimed experts are bound to increase after Chopra’s feat on Sunday morning. Next time, they might feel let down if he doesn’t win gold. A tribute to his achievements. Sports shops have already talked of a three-fold jump in sales of javelins after the last Olympics. Chopra should charge them a cess on each sale.

His full set of medals is an astonishing feat. Gold at the junior World championships, gold at the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, the historic Olympic gold and now the World Championship silver.

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Chopra has not just put India on the javelin throw map of the world but has also planted the flag of Asia. He was the first male javelin thrower from Asia to win an Olympic gold. Today he became the first man from Asia to win a World Championship medal in the javelin throw. He had everyone on the edge of their seats willing him to win a medal on Sunday morning. By the end of one nerve-wracking hour he made history.

First published on: 24-07-2022 at 10:43:10 am
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