Neeraj’s Gold a Learning for India to Train Our Athletes Right
The 88.06-metre throw of the javelin that enabled Neeraj Chopra to crush the competition at the 2018 Asian Games is not a mere measure of distance. It’s a matter of perspective. Putting a context to it helps to develop a better sense of understanding of his achievement at the Gelora Bung Kamo Stadium in Jakarta.
In 2018, there are only four athletes on this planet who have hurled the 800-gram metal spear farther than him on six previous occasions. This illustrious list includes three Germans: the reigning Olympic champion, Thomas Röhler, the defending world champion, Johannes Vetter and Andreas Hofmann besides Estonian thrower Magnus Kirt.
Chopra’s Asian Games gold, which came wrapped with a velvet lining of personal best and national record, is a measure of where he stands today in the sport’s hierarchy that is dominated by Europeans –especially Germans– and where he is headed in the years ahead.
The 20-year-old from Khandra village in Panipat is a work-in-progress that is yet to be honed around the rough edges by expert hands before the dazzling sparkle of his talent is revealed in its full glory.
The redeeming aspect of the athlete is that he carries a mature head on his broad shoulders. “I had very good preparations before coming into the Asian Games and hoped to win. But the javelin was gaining too much height that is why I was not able to cover more distance that I wanted,” he said after winning the historic gold medal.
Chopra’s success story, though heartening, also serves as a cautionary tale of what could have gone wrong. It was more of a chance than design that put his nascent career back on the rails. After winning gold at the 2016 IAAF U-20 World Championship in Poland—the first by Indian athlete in track and field at the world level—he lost his coach, Gary Calvert, over a minor quibble with the Sports Authority of India for a bonus of mere $ 2,000 that the Australian demanded for his ward’s historic medal and a junior world record of 86.48 metres to boot. This fallout with the SAI meant Calvert left the Indian shores in a huff.
In 2017, for more than three months, during the most crucial phase of development, Chopra was left with no option but self-train. The regression showed in his results as errors creeped into his technique with the added consequences of a groin injury that he picked up at the Zurich round of the Diamond League. He slid into the low 80s and in the 2017 IAAF World Championship in London the Indian ace failed to qualify for the finals.
“It’s a pity mate that the authorities who pretend to run sports in your country don’t have any long term vision. Here is an athlete who is in prime shape to break into the 90-metre league, but they want to fight over loose change. It would be a real shame if Chopra doesn’t realise his full potential,” Calvert told this writer after quitting.
He passed away after suffering a heart attack this July before he could see his favourite ward with the Asian Games gold medal around his neck.
Left with no option, Chopra relocated to Offenburg, Germany to train alongside Röhler and Vetter for three months, before the Athletics Federation of India engaged the services of Uwe Hohn, the legendary German thrower, who is the only man in the world to breach the 100-metre mark. And, the results were instant.
At the Federation Cup in Patiala, which also served as the selection trails for the Commonwealth Games squad, Chopra cleared a distance 85.63 metres: his second best throw in his career since the junior world cup record.
Since then, under Hohn’s watch, Chopra has been going farther. In the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games his throw of 86.47 metres fetched him the gold medal, which he followed up with a new career best of 87.43 metres in the Doha leg of the Diamond League in May. Wins in the Satteville Athletics meet in France (82.23 metres) and Savo Games, Finland (85.69 metres) further boosted his confidence that he carried into the Jakarta, where inched closer to the magical 90-metre barrier.
“It’s an important year for him with so many big competitions lined up, so our focus will be more on strength and core training,” said Hohn on the sidelines of the Federation Cup earlier this year. “But to break into the 90-metre club, we would need to work on his technique. He has the natural build and strength to match the best in the world.”
It’s heartening to know that the athlete is on the same page as the coach in a country where wards tend to fall out with their coaches in the celebratory glow of the arclight of success. “After the last competition of the year, I will start working on the technique as has been suggested by my coach,’ said Chopra in Jakarta before signing off.
There is no doubt, that the Naib Subedar in the Indian Army will be piled with plenty of riches of awards and accolades after his Asian Games gold, but it’s equally important that the AFI and SAI officials leave him in peace and give him adequate space to train under Hohn for that elusive medal in athletics at the Olympics in two years’ time.
(The writer is a Delhi-based independent journalist and former managing editor of Sports Illustrated India and sports editor TOI (Chandigarh)