Neeraj greatest athlete that India has produced, says athletics body chief

Adille Sumariwalla, an Olympian and long-serving president of AFI, is upbeat about the Indian contingent improving on its last Asian Games haul

Neeraj Chopra was coming off a groin injury at the World Athletics Championships (photo: National Herald archives)
Neeraj Chopra was coming off a groin injury at the World Athletics Championships (photo: National Herald archives)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

The head honcho of Indian athletics has no qualms about admitting that Neeraj Chopra, the first gold medallist for India at the World Athletics Championships, is the greatest the country has ever produced, and feels that the federation played its part in India's improved overall performance in Budapest.   

While Neeraj’s was the only medal win, India had a few other notable performances — with two more javelin throwers, Kishore Jena and DP Manu, finishing fifth and sixth respectively in the final; the men’s 4 x 400 m relay team making headlines with an Asian record to make the final where they finished a creditable fifth; Parul Chaudhary lowering the national record to make the final of the women’s 3000 m steeplechase, where she finished 11th, while Jeswin Aldrin also placed 11th in the men’s long jump final. 

President of the Athletics Federation of India Adille Sumariwalla (photo: X)
President of the Athletics Federation of India Adille Sumariwalla (photo: X)

‘’A gold at World Athletics can be more difficult than one at the Olympics, and let me tell you it was an extremely close event that Neeraj won. The second and third place finishers, Arshad Nadeem and Jakub Vadlejch, have both breached the 90 m mark in their careers, while Neeraj is yet to do so,’’ said Adille Sumariwalla, a former Olympian (Moscow 1980) and long-serving president of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI). 

Speaking to National Herald over phone from Budapest the morning after the global showpiece ended, Sumariwalla said: ‘’The support team had to be extremely careful with Neeraj as he was coming out of a groin injury. It’s not only that he is an Olympic gold medallist and has two medals at the Worlds now, but his consistency has been phenomenal as all his throws on Sunday ranged from 83 to 88 m. He is certainly the best athlete we have ever produced.’’  

While the overall performance of the 27-member Indian squad was still below par at the global event, the 11-time national champion sprinter observed that there were a number of high points. ‘’If you compare our young relay team to other top countries, their teams were studded with quality sprinters. It was still phenomenal for the quartet (Muhammed Anas Yahiya, Amoj Jacob, Muhammed Ajmal Variyathodi and Rajesh Ramesh) to run sub-three minute timings for two days on the trot,’’ he pointed out.  

‘’Parul, on the other hand, smashed Lalitha Babar’s national record (9: 19.76) by clocking 9:15.31 to finish 11th in the final and qualify for the Paris Olympics. Jeswin Aldrin was impressive too,’’ said Sumariwalla.

Nominated as one of the vice-presidents of the executive committee of World Athletics last week, he pointed out that the federation often does not get enough credit — from either fans or media — for putting a system in place over the past decade. ‘’While Neeraj is an exceptional talent, the growth in javelin performance has not happened overnight. We began a programme 10 years ago and nurtured him throughout, with inputs like where to train, which competitions to take part in, as also with the choice of coaches. 

 ‘’If you look back, his coaches were changed thrice so far and we must thank the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and the union government for providing necessary clearances and funding. We have worked hard to create an ecosystem which is now beginning to show results,’’ he said.     

 Looking ahead, how does he see the athletes performing in the Asian Games? ‘’There will be tough competition as the Chinese will be very difficult to beat in China. Japan will also send their ‘A’ team, but we will do well and hope to improve on the 20 medals we won last time,’’ he said. 

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