Sports: Neeraj Chopra in competition mode as Paris beckons

Neeraj Chopra makes an attempt in the men's javelin throw during the Diamond League athletics meet at the Qatar Sports Club stadium in Doha, on 10 May. (AP)
Neeraj Chopra makes an attempt in the men's javelin throw during the Diamond League athletics meet at the Qatar Sports Club stadium in Doha, on 10 May. (AP)


Neeraj Chopra didn’t quite hit the heights in Doha, but his Diamond League performance was a timely reminder of the javelin star’s quality

It wasn’t 90m. It wasn’t even over 88.38m, which would have helped him open the all-crucial Olympics year with a win at the Doha Diamond League. But it wasn’t going to dampen the mood of Neeraj Chopra, the pied piper of Indian athletics. Sporting a neon orange jacket—which he kept slipping into between throws during the competition—Chopra signed almost every autograph, smiled cheerfully and clicked almost every selfie asked of him before he made his way to the players’ exit. Doha is as close to home as it gets on the international athletics calendar for Chopra, and he basked in the fanfare.

“I am happy with the result today, but not with the effort," Chopra told the media. On Friday, 10 May, playing his first event of the season, the Indian had missed the first place by a matter of two centimetres. His fierce rival Jakub Vadlejch had won the event with a best throw of 88.38m. Almost through the evening, the 26-year-old, who started the evening with a foul, had been underwhelming despite a helpful tailwind. But Chopra did what’s expected of champions—perform well even on a bad day. On his last effort, he sent the spear soaring over the field, over 85m—the last marked distance at the Qatar Sports Club stadium Friday night. 88.36m. Second place.

“Today, I felt that I could do it but," he said. “Maybe God wants me to [cross 90] somewhere else."

Doha was Chopra’s comeback into competition mode—his first international event since the Asian Games in Hangzhou in October 2023. He took some time to warm up to the challenge before his best effort of the day. In the last two competitions, the javelin star has broken away from the trend and has finished stronger than he started.

Hitting the mark

“This is a good thing for me," Chopra added. “Whenever the competition gets stretched, like it did today, I can still get my best throw at the end. I have done this before too. I can do it on any throw. It’s just the body has to be in that right condition and the mindset has to be there. Confidence is the main thing. And the feeling was not there, but the distance was good today."

The distance, however, wasn’t good enough to stop people asking him when he will breach the 90m mark. The wretched question rears its head every time Chopra talks to the media. Before the event. After the event. During it, the query hangs in the air. It is a constant reminder of the one shortcoming in his impressive resume. Chopra usually meets it with good humour, many a times bringing up the topic himself to save himself, and the rest, the trouble.

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“This question, people have been asking me since 2018 when I threw 88.06 at the (2018) Asian Games," said Chopra, whose personal best is an agonisingly close 89.94m, which he threw at the 2022 Stockholm Diamond League. “But since then, a lot of things have happened—my elbow surgery and all. I’ve been stuck between 88 and 89. But I really want to break this barrier."

Even his rivals in javelin and other track and field events are eager for Chopra to breach the mark. Tokyo silver medalist Vadlejch, who hit a personal best of 90.88m in the Qatari capital two years ago, believes it is “only a matter of time," before Chopra can join the 90m+ club, while Greek Olympic long jump champion Miltiádis Tentóglou said during the Doha pre-event press conference, “I will be really happy if Neeraj throws 90m."

Neeraj Chopra reacts after an attempt in the men's javelin throw during the Diamond League athletics meet at the Qatar Sports Club stadium in Doha.
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Neeraj Chopra reacts after an attempt in the men's javelin throw during the Diamond League athletics meet at the Qatar Sports Club stadium in Doha. (AP)

While Chopra believes that he will eventually throw the distance, for now, he’s happy with the string of results he has posted. Since the deferred Tokyo Olympics in 2021, when he became the first Indian to win a track-and-field medal as he captured the gold in javelin, Chopra hasn’t done worse than second position. He has clinched gold, or stood first in Diamond League competitions, in seven of the 13 events. This includes a World Championship gold in 2023, a Diamond League finals win in 2022 and defending his Asian Games gold in 2023.

“I like to be consistent. It’s one of my greatest weapons," he said in Doha. “I will throw over 90 eventually, but consistency is more important to me."

The star Indian athlete, who was the biggest drawcard in Doha last week, had started the media interaction on the eve of the Doha Diamond League by saying that he “feels great sitting in the company of champions."

Apart from Chopra, Thursday’s line-up had included long-jumper Tentóglou, 400 Olympic champion Steve Gardiner and pole vault world champion Nina Kennedy. Of the lot, Chopra is the only one who knows how to handle the pressure of a billion dreams, but the 26-year-old is happy to put India on the global athletics map.

“At one point it was only a dream, that Indians could compete in a field like this," says Chopra, who effortlessly goes from desi boy-next-door to international superstar at the top of his game. “I feel that I am lucky to have achieved so much. But I have worked hard for it. I have had a lot of setbacks as well, there were injuries, I had to skip some events because of them, like the Commonwealth Games [2022]. There have been hurdles, but I have performed well at the right time."

Returning to India

It will be another year of reckoning for Chopra has he prepares for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Chopra did his pre-season training in Potchefstroom, South Africa and Gloria, Turkey, working mainly on his strength and conditioning. He believes he is still not as strong as the European throwers and wants to iron out the chinks in the armour.

For most of the season, he trains abroad to keep away from the distractions at home. But the ace javelin thrower has added a pit stop in India this week. The Federation Cup in Bhubaneswar, Odisha on 15 May will be Chopra’s first appearance in India in three years.

“It wasn’t essential for me to play the Fed Cup this time. This is an Olympic year and ideally, I wanted to focus on international competitions, but I think this will be better for Indian athletics. I don’t want people to only follow javelin or my tournaments. I want to request people to come and watch and support other athletics events too," said Chopra.

While Chopra is happy to use his profile to elevate the status of Indian athletics, he has been breaking new ground with every big win, be it the historic medal in Tokyo or the World Championship gold. In Paris, he will encounter another first as he defends his Olympic title.

“India is a big country and everyone wants (us to win) gold," smiled Chopra. “But it’s really hard because it’s the Olympics – the best athletes in the world come there. Tokyo showed that I could handle the pressure of such a big competition and the belief that I could do it. After that, I had a good 2022. I had a national record, a few 89+ throws and a few 88. I have a lot of confidence. It will help me in Paris as well. Even if I am not doing too well in the beginning, I know I can handle myself till the end. I know how to handle the pressure now, even if my body is not with me."

In the Olympic year, Chopra didn’t quite lay down the marker like he was hoping to in Doha. But the big final throw was a reminder that he can never be counted out. Even on a bad day.

Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.

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