A year ago at the World Under-20 championships, javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra was in second place after the first round. Johan Grobler of South Africa had taken the lead with the only 80 metre-plus throw till then. The Indian’s next attempt would help him enter the record books. From 79.66 metres in the first effort, he improved to 86.48 to set a world junior mark. On that July evening in Bydgoszcz, Poland, Chopra had set a high standard by which he continues to be judged till today. Those at the Kalinga Stadium would have lost count of the number of times the compere took their attention to the javelin arena by stating that the ‘world junior champion’ was in the fray.
Every time Chopra’s credentials were announced, his image flashed on the giant screen. At times it showed him stretching, on other occasions he seemed lost in thought. The evening hadn’t gone according to plan for Chopra. His first throw was a foul. By the end of the second round, he looked listless. He had broken his stride in the second throw and lost momentum. After registering 78.59 in his second attempt, he slipped to 78.54 metres. Just over a week ago, Chopra had finished fifth at the Diamond League in Paris with a throw of 84.67m.
The anticipation around India winning gold in the javelin throw at the 22nd Asian Athletics Championships had only grown after his performance in Paris. On a day when India was surging towards its highest ever tally in these continental games, its youngest and brightest star seemed to be fading in the men’s javelin final. Three competitors, including compatriot Davinder Singh Kang, had produced 80m-plus throws and Chopra was in fourth place overall after the third round.Kang had got the partisan fans involved by gesturing them to cheer for him and the thousands responded in unison. His fourth attempt was an 83.29, which put him in second place behind Ahmed BA of Qatar (83.70). What prompted a change in body language from Chopra isn’t clear, but he took a leaf out of Kang’s book and turned to the stands at the side of the javelin arena and raised his arms.
The stadium resounded with cheers as Chopra started his approach. As the spear left his hand, Chopra took a tumble but didn’t foul. It was to be his best throw so far of the evening, the 83.06 effort putting him in contention for a medal. His fifth attempt was another 80-plus throw – 80.99. The young Indian was back in form having been able to lift his performance after starting off badly. Yet, he was in third place going into the final round. If Chopra wanted further inspiration, he just had to look around.
The men’s 4×400 relay team had just outclassed the field to win gold, and the women’s relay team was lining up for their race. The national anthem had been played on two occasions already at the medal ceremony at the other end of the ground while the men’s javelin competition was in progress. With only one attempt left, Chopra gave it his all. It was a make-or-break throw for the World Junior Champion and he made it count with a commendable 85.23m, a distance greater than the one he registered in the Paris leg of the Diamond League.
He pumped his fist and looked skywards before quickly regaining his poise because a couple of throwers, including Asia’s season-leading athlete Cheng Chao-Tsun of Chinese Taipei, had to complete the final round. Shortly, the digital board flashed the results and it confirmed Chopra’s first place. Qatar’s Ahmed took silver (83.70), while Kang won bronze (83.29).
“I was not feeling good initially and it took time for me to hit my stride. I knew I just needed one big throw and I also felt that I was capable of it. But somehow in the early part of the competition, I just didn’t feel the rush. But I knew that I just needed to switch on and for me it happened at the right time,” Chopra said. As the competitions came to a close, there were endless victory laps by Indian athletes. The men’s 4×400 relay team had just completes theirs, when the women got their turn with Chopra joining in.
Women’s 800, a let down
Favourite in the women’s 800, Tintu Luka didn’t finish the race. She stopped running after 500 metres and sat down exhausted. Her teammate Archana Adhav won a closely contested race edging out Sri Lanka’ Nimali Waliwarsha Konda. However, Adhav’s joy was shortlived after judges disqualified her for pushing Konda as the two raced neck and neck to the finish line. Luka had fainted during the Federation Cup in Patiala last month because of ‘heat exhaustion’ and on Sunday, her coach PT Usha said she was suffering from flu. “She had fever in the morning and body ache. But as this is an Asian level meet she had to participate,” Usha said.