When Neeraj Chopra was crowned as the World’s numero uno javelin thrower last Monday, he was expectedly bombarded with congratulatory messages and praise befitting the achievement from all sections, national and international. It was yet another feather in the cap of the 25-year old who, with no disrespect to those who came before him, has single-handedly triggered a possible athletic revolution in India.
In fact, his achievements starting with the Tokyo Olympics may well be seen as a watershed moment in Indian sporting history, breaking the invisible glass ceiling for Indian track & field athletes in terms of international performance, confidence and belief. And yet, when he takes the field on June 3 at the FBK Games in The Netherlands, there will be the one small question that has followed him forever — will he cross the 90m mark?
It’s something that Neeraj has now accepted as the default conversation-opener every time he talks — to the media, the officials, the fans and any Indian he meets during his competitive and training outings anywhere in the world. Make no mistake, they are everywhere. He has also learned to take the burden of expectations for what it is — just expectations.
Soon after winning the Olympic gold, Neeraj had admitted the target was on his mind but more as a motivation to improve than anything else.
Also read: Tokyo Olympics | How Neeraj made the gold
“The 90m mark is an important barrier. The best in the world have got it and it is important for me to personally consider myself a genuine world-level thrower,” he had said but insisted that it was not something he thought of too often. “It is a target but not an obsession. It can be 89.99m or 90.1m also in competition at some point, it won’t change the way I train,” he had explained.
To those in the know, however, Neeraj’s anointment as destiny’s child started five years before the rainy, windy night in Tokyo, when he set a new junior World record en route to winning gold at the 2016 World Junior Championships. Since then, through competitions ranging from the SAF Games all the way up, the 2022 World Championships is the only blip in his still-improving golden career — he could only manage a silver in Eugene.
What his successes have meant for a country that remembers Olympic sports only once in two years — during the Asian/Commonwealth Games and the Olympics — is an unreal urgency to overhaul achievements.
It manifests in different ways too — when Pakistan’s Arshad Nadeem did it at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in the absence of an injured Neeraj, things quickly turned into an India vs Pakistan issue, specially on social media, adding a layer of urgency to the entire exercise.
Over the last few years, however, the process of getting better has taken priority as has the maturity to not let results define him. “It’s never about breaking records or beating someone but doing your best to improve yourself. By that logic, Johannes Vetter has crossed 97m also. I don’t ever go into a competition with the pressure of distance,” he had said last year.
Also read | Trust and transparency with coach very important in achieving success: Neeraj
For most people, the 90m mark is like the ‘holy grail’, making many wonder why he hasn’t done it yet despite all his successes. And he has already done 89.94m, so six centimetres shouldn’t be too difficult, right? For reference, that’s just the length of an average adult little finger.
Wrong. The difference at the top in elite sports is often a matter of millimetres and micro-seconds. At the 2017 Worlds, Germany’s Johannes Vetter edged ahead of Jakub Vadlejch of Czech Republic for gold by a mere 1.5 centimetres. Neeraj himself has gone from 86.48m in 2016 to 89.94m in 2022, an improvement of just over three metres in six years with the best of training and sackloads of hard work!
Consider this: Only 23 men have managed to go past 90m since the weight and design of the javelin was standardised by World Athletics in 1986. Of these, Vetter has done so an incredible eight times while Czech legend Jan Zelezny has managed it seven times. Among the Asians, only Nadeem and Chinese Taipei’s Cheng Chao-tsun are in the elite club.
Zelezny’s 98.48m remains the World record for an incredible 27 years and counting. And Vetter is in an exclusive class of one among the active athletes to go past 95m despite all the advancements in technology and training since the now 56-year old Zelezny hung up his boots.
All this is simply to put the competition at the top in perspective. Earlier this year, Neeraj laughed off the inevitable yet again, bringing it up himself at the beginning of an interaction to pre-empt any questions.
“Let’s say I hit it and don’t win a medal — then there will be questions on that and the talk will be of hitting 93 or 94m. I am happy that I have been consistent this season. There are times when medals come with a shorter throw or slower timing but people don’t realise it simply means the conditions were tough and you managed to adjust better than the rest. The 90m will happen when it has to,” he had tried to put the matter to rest.
That won’t happen, though. On June 3 in Hengelo, Neeraj will be up against Vetter for the first time since Tokyo Olympics, the German battling injuries and spending most of 2022 and 2023 in rehab, along with two other Germans, both with a personal best of over 90m – Julian Weber and Andreas Hofmann.
Regardless of the results, though, the 90m question will continue to live on in the collective Indian social conscious – till he breaches it.