Ever since he hogged the limelight by smashing the world junior record in javelin in 2016, there was an obvious buzz in the air about the potential Neeraj Chopra carries with himself, to bag an Olympic gold for India.
His personal best would have indeed won India a medal at the 2016 Olympics – a bronze – but unfortunately, Chopra’s stellar show came just a couple of weeks after the qualification cut-off date for the Rio Games.
India came back from Brazil with just a bronze and silver to show for – their worst tally since the 2004 Olympics Games in Athens, where Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore saved the nation’s blushes by bagging a silver in double trap.
However, Indians can build their hope on Chopra once again.
Not an Easy Task
While the nation was glued to the developments of the India under-19 cricket team performing in South Africa, the 22-year-old qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics with a throw of 87.86m at the Athletics Central North East meeting at Potchefstroom last month.
That mark, however, is not his best.
In 2018, Chopra first recorded an 86.47m throw to clinch gold at the Commonwealth Games before bagging the yellow metal at the Asian Games with 88.06m.
Besides becoming the first Indian to bag gold at both the events, Chopra breathed renewed hope that he can well be among the medal contenders a couple of years later at Tokyo.
However, it won’t be easy.
For a start, Chopra doesn’t even figure among the top-25 names in men’s history to have thrown the spear at greater distances.
His throw at the Asian Games, his best and a national record, is far off where his close competitors are at the moment.
Germany’s Thomas Rohler had thrown 90.30m at the Rio Olympics to bag gold while his compatriots Andreas Hofmann (92.06m) and Johannes Vetter (94.4m) have already breached the 90m-mark.
In fact, since the start of 2018, the German trio have consistently soared past 90m and would start favourites for the medal at Tokyo.
Glimmer of Hope
Besides the troika, world No 1 & 2 Magnus Kurt and Cheng Chao-Tsun have also been impressive – both managing to win events recording more than 90m in the recent past. However, in 2019, only six throws were registered at 88m or higher with the mark going past 90m only twice.
However, during all this while, Chopra had virtually been untested. Although his qualification throw for the Tokyo Olympics is the season’s best so far, it’s likely to be bettered over the next couple of months, given the schedule of the athletics calendar.
The competition at Potchefstroom, South Africa was also Chopra’s first international event since the Asian Games, owing to his elbow injury, which had required a surgery.
It took up a long time for him to get battle ready. Although, given that he was expected to take part in the National Championships last year, the Athletics Federation of India decided to hand him more time for rehabilitation.
It was a cumulative decision; one that several sections of the Indian athletics fraternity felt would do Chopra a whole lot of good.
“He (Chopra) should not participate and it's not just my opinion, it's the opinion of the (AFI) president, the planning committee chairman, the high-performance director and also the chief coach... everyone. He says he is alright but if he is competing, it is at his own risk,” P Radhakrishnan Nair, deputy chief coach, athletics Federation of India, was quoted as saying by Sportstar.
One Good Throw
In between, besides the World Championships, Chopra also missed out on the Diamond League and the Asian Championships. But his comeback has been on expected lines and only justified his absence from the field.
It wasn’t a tough field at the Athletics Central North East, given Neeraj was one of just five athletes taking part but the focus was more on if he could achieve the 85m qualifying mark set for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
A significant development in Chopra’s career trajectory has also seen him splitting with national coach Uwe Hohn and working with Klaus Bartonietz, with whom he started training last December. Chopra had also put in a cautious effort.
His first three throws, 81.63m, 82.00m and 82.57m, were nowhere close to where he usually lands his javelin and once the fourth helped him qualify for the Olympics, he didn’t pick up the spear anymore.
Hohn, the only athlete to have recorded a throw north of 100m in history, had set a 94m-target for Neeraj last year at the Tokyo Olympics to ensure he bags a medal. And while the difference between his best and that mark doesn’t seem much, the gulf is enough to see Neeraj not end up on the podium.
However, he needs to land the spear that long just once. And history will take care of the rest. Even Usain Bolt never replicated his 9.59s-mark.
. Read more on Olympic Sports by The Quint.RSS & BJP’s Nehru-Netaji ‘Cosplay’: Irony Dies a Thousand DeathsBJP May Have Suffered Due to Hate Statements: Shah on Delhi Polls . Read more on Olympic Sports by The Quint.