World Athletics: Is Neeraj Chopra India’s greatest athlete ever?

The golden boy of javelin has done it again, joining an elite club of Jan Zelezny and Andreas Thorkildsen to hold both the Olympics and Worlds titles together

Olympic champion javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra (Photo: NH File Photo)
Olympic champion javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra (Photo: NH File Photo)

Gautam Bhattacharyya

If the two iconic heroes of javelin in history were Czech Jan Zelezny of Czech Republic and Andreas Thorkildsen of Norway, Neeraj Chopra etched his name as the third member of the elite club late on Sunday night. The Indian emulated them as the holder of both the Olympics and the World Championship titles in the sport simultaneously as he lit up the night skies in Budapest on the final day. 

The effort of 88.17 metres in his second attempt would not rate as one of his best, as his pursuit of the 90-metre mark will have to wait for another day. However, the hallmark of a champion is to hold his own against the odds as Chopra did, summoning all his experience and steely resolve into play when his first throw just reached 79 metres and the pressure was building up to convert his last year’s silver to gold this time. 

He decided not to register the score at all as he stepped the line to force a foul. Come the second throw, the Army officer got his rhythm back with the throw and began to celebrate even before his javelin could land – much to the delight of a packed stadium which treated him like a rockstar.  

Chopra covered distances of 88.17m, 86.32m, 84.64m, 87.73m and 83.98m following his foul in the first throw. Earlier in the qualification round on Friday, he needed only one throw to book a place for Sunday's event with a heave of 88.77m in his first attempt.  

The rest of the final went as per script as Pakistan’s Arshad Nadeem, the reigning Commonwealth Games gold medallist, finished with a silver at 87.82m. The Czech Republic's Jakub Vadlejch took the bronze in 86.67m.  

Interestingly, the other two Indian javelin throwers in contention – Kishore Jena and DP Manu showed they belonged as they finished fifth and sixth, respectively. While Jena had the highest registered throw of 84.77m – his personal best – Manu threw 84.14m. 

Zelezny, incidentally, was simply unbeatable in Olympics with a sequence of gold medals in 1992, 1996 and 2000 while winning the World Championships title in 1993, 1995 and 2001. Thorkildsen won gold in the 2008 Olympics and 2009 World Championships. 

The challenge now before Chopra, a world No.1 at only 25, is whether he can maintain this dream run in his discipline – which is as demanding and fraught with risk of injuries. The Asian Games in Hangzhou will be his next stop while the Paris Olympics comes up in a year’s time but what the Olympics and Worlds gold has done is to certainly hoist him as arguably the greatest ever Indian athlete – with due regards to the legacy of ‘Flying Sikh’ Milkha Singh and P.T.Usha.    

It was Anju Bobby George, the only other Indian to win a medal at the Worlds when she took bronze in the women's long jump in 2003 in Paris, who endorsed Chopra with the greatest tag when he ended with a silver at the Worlds in Eugene last year. 

Any such tag is a subjective one but javelin is, to quote George, one of the ‘‘toughest events’’ in the world - where Indians have been left starry-eyed to watch the exploits of the erstwhile Eastern Bloc countries and the Europeans - along with shotput and discus throw over the ages. It takes a rare combination of brute strength, technique, rhythm - though may not be the sprinting skills in equal measure. A tough proposition for an Indian - and no words of praise is enough for Chopra for trying to push the boundaries in such a sport. 

Which other Indian athlete has taught a country of billion people to dream big ahead of such events in the past? No one - and this is what makes Neeraj Chopra special for Indian sport! 

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Published: 28 Aug 2023, 8:21 AM