Neeraj Chopra: Will he be World Athlete of the Year 2023?
The javelin ace is shortlisted among the top five nominees, as he begins work on retaining his Olympics gold at Paris 2024
If Neeraj Chopra emerges as the World Athlete of the Year 2023, it will be a huge ‘first' for Indian sport and surely another feather in his cap.
However, the javelin ace is not one who believes in resting on his laurels. He has already started planning for the Paris Olympics in less than a year’s time.
The current year has been a stellar one for Chopra, as he became the first Indian athlete to win a gold at the World Athletics in Budapest this August, emulating his idol Jan Jelezny to hold both the Olympics and world titles together.
He followed it up by retaining his gold medal at the Asian Games in October.
And so, it's been a year of exploits to catapult him into the 11 initial nominees for the Men’s World Athlete of the Year award last month. Chopra has now made it to the shortlist of five names, raising a serious possibility of joining the elite club that boasts legends like Usain Bolt, Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson.
The awardees will be announced on 11 December.
Among those in the contention against Chopra, though, is US king of the sprint Noah Lyles, who looks a favourite after landing the sprint double in the Worlds – while he is undefeated in six past 200m finals.
The others in fray are US shotputter Ryan Crouser, world champion and world record-holder; Sweden’s pole vaulter Mondo Duplantis, world champion; and Kenyan Kelvin Kiptum, the marathon ace who has been a world record breaker and won the London and Chicago marathons.
'’The five athletes, who represent four countries from four area associations, have achieved sensational performances across a range of athletics disciplines in 2023, winning titles and breaking world records at the World Athletics Championships 2023, one-day meeting circuits, Label Road races and other events around the world,'’ World Athletics said in a release.
As for Chopra, it has been a dream journey for the 25-year-old army officer from Panipat since his golden moment in the Tokyo Olympics, with no peaks unscaled apart from a personal milestone of crossing the 90-metre mark.
He came agonisingly close to it with his best effort of 89.94 metres at the Stockholm Diamond League last year, and has kept a wary eye on Shahbaz Nadeem, his friend and arch-rival from Pakistan, who achieved the target while winning his Commonwealth Games gold in Birmingham.
Chopra, who had to sit out the last Commonwealth Games with an injury, threw 88.17 metres in his second attempt at the Worlds for the gold this year.
The international season over, Chopra has since been enjoying a little downtime at his Punjab home, though he has already started planning ahead.
‘’I will start my preparation for the Paris Olympics and, for that, I will go abroad. I will give 100 per cent to win a medal for the country,’’ he said in an interview.
‘’I am practising well for it. I will try my best to win a medal. I will give my best at the Olympics as I know that this opportunity comes once in four years. I am not worried about the result; just want to prepare well and make the country proud,’’ he added.
There is no gainsaying that Neeraj has taken himself to a stratospheric height where no Indian athlete has gone before, earning the sobriquet of being the greatest Indian athlete ever.
It began in Tokyo, where he ended a wait longer than 100 years to become the first Indian to win an individual gold medal in his sport at the Olympics, with a 87.58m throw. He was only the second Indian athlete overall, after shooter Abhinav Bindra, to win the yellow metal as an individual Olympian.
What next, then, for Chopra?
While Czech giant Zelezny’s record has been insurmountable — he had a sequence of gold medals in the Olympics in 1992, '96 and 2000, while winning the Worlds in 1993, '95 and 2001 — and it’s no mean task to topple him, Chopra has both age and form on his side.
And like he has indicated himself, trying is certainly worth his best effort!