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Stature on Show – Neeraj Chopra Wins Gold on Fabled Homecoming With Insouciance

Despite being far from his usual standards, Neeraj Chopra won the gold medal at the Federation Cup.

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From the onset, it seemed certain that the atmosphere had more provision for magnanimity than enmity. What had been a fiercely competitive competition for the past three days had miraculously – all at the drop of a hat – transformed into a resplendent platform for a superstar’s homecoming. 

For the first instance since winning the fabled gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Neeraj Chopra was about to feature on Indian soil. With the ‘feature’ not being restricted to candid smiles and not-so-candid, media-trained answers, but, in all his flesh and glory, he would throw a javelin, at the Kalinga Stadium in Odisha’s Bhubaneswar.

Chaperoned by police, and inundated by fan requests, Neeraj cut a cheerful, yet, unusually insouciant figure when he was going through the pre-event training drills. The delirium acted as a distraction from the reality that the 27th National Federation Senior Athletics Competition was sandwiched between the Doha Diamond League and the Golden Spike in Czechia. With the temperature crossing 30 °C and humidity being around 85%, coupled with precarious winds, it was always likely that the performance Neeraj would put on display, on his homecoming, would be a mile and a half shy of his usual standards.
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The event transpired according to the expectations.

After the first throw, Neeraj found himself in second place, coming up with an 82m attempt as opposed to 82.06m. After fouling on his second attempt, he still was behind after the third throw, which was 81.29m – behind not only Manu’s best attempt of 82.06m, but his third throw of 81.43m as well.

But in the fourth attempt, Neeraj turned up the intensity scale ever so slightly, as if he had a magical regulator, and recorded 82.27m. Knowing it was enough to clear the pack, the athlete who has ‘completed’ javelin by winning everything he could have won, added another gold medal to his ever-growing tally. The last couple of throws were not necessary – those were left for the chasing pack to try and close the gap. 
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Neeraj was honest about his performance after the event, saying:

Let’s not talk about the throws. They were not up to the mark. But I am just happy to compete in India after such a long time, and it was great to see that so many people came to support me.
Neeraj Chopra

Further elaborating on why he chose not to match the standards fans associate him with – albeit a further elaboration was not necessitated – Neeraj said:

All of you know about the weather conditions. I had planned at the start that I would put in effort according to how I was feeling. I am just back from Doha. That is why I only made four throws, as I am leaving for Ostrava (for the Golden Spike) soon, in about 10-12 days.
Neeraj Chopra
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Amid all of his achievements, a distinction Neeraj still misses is that of a 90m throw. On being asked about whether he is eyeing that mark, or only an Olympics gold will suffice, the 26-year-old said:

If you compare the two, I think the Olympic gold has greater importance than a particular distance. Records can be broken when it comes to distance, but no one can take your medals away. I am trying for 90m and I am confident that when the place and conditions are right, I will achieve that. But for now, I am focusing on getting the Olympic medal.
Neeraj Chopra

The 12-strong pack saw only two throwers getting into the 80s – Neeraj and Manu. The former urged his compatriots to raise the bar, which would ultimately facilitate the nation’s holistic development in javelin throw.

The best thing would be to push each other, as the Germans did. The likes of Andreas Hofman, Johannes Vetter and Julian Weber all pushed each other’s limits. So, they could get to the 90m-mark and also win medals at the Diamond League and the World Championships. If we Indians push one another, we will enjoy more success in international competitions.
Neeraj Chopra

Beyond the homecoming, Wednesday’s Bhubaneswar served as a reminder that, at least in the country, Neeraj could turn up in his untroubled, devil-may-care avatar, but still clear all competition with ease. This is the level India’s chasing pack will have to aim for.

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