How do you follow up after winning the country's first-ever track-and-field gold medal at the Olympics? Certainly not by staying out of action for the next 10 months.
But with every part of India and every politician in power wanting to celebrate Neeraj Chopra's historic Tokyo gold, the then 23-year-old obliged for months. The result was a bout of sickness and a 14-kg weight gain, after missing months of training.
Years in the sport and an alliance with the JSW, however, ensured that his coach and a back-room that comprises some of Indian sports' sharpest minds planned the perfect comeback for Neeraj. Following six months of rigorous training in Chula Vista, Turkey, and then Finland – all funded by the Sports Authority of India – he made a successful comeback this June, finishing on podiums of both the events he's competed in thus far.
But will the trend continue over the all-important six weeks to come?
Six Weeks, Three Big Events
In the first week of June, days before his comeback at the Paavo Nurmi Games, Neeraj Chopra spoke to The Quint about his one major target of the year – crossing the 90-metre mark.
"I will try to cross the 90-metre mark this year. I'm not thinking that I have to cross it in my first event but I will give my best in every event. We also have to take into account the weather and the conditions on the day – my performance will depend on those as well," he had said.
Just one week later, in his second competitive throw in over 10 months, Neeraj got closer than he ever has to the magical mark, creating a national record with his gold medal-winning throw of 89.30m. It eclipsed his own national record of 87.58 metres that he had thrown at the Indian Grand Prix 3 in Patiala in 2021.
But while the field was packed at the two events in Finland, and his own throws sharp, Neeraj's big test will be over the next six weeks as he's scheduled to compete at the Stockholm Diamond League, the Commonwealth Games, and most importantly, the World Championships. Basically, his three big events of 2022.
What's a Diamond League Event?
The first of Neeraj's big events will be the Diamond League in Stockholm that gets underway on 30 June. While the Paavo Nurmi Games and Kuortane Games, where he bagged silver and gold, featured some of his main contemporaries, a Diamond League event, by definition, is a league above.
In 2022, there are 13 Diamond League tournaments, with five featuring the men's javelin event. The one hosted by Doha has already taken place in May, and there are four more to go – in Stockholm, Silesia, Monaco, and Lausanne. Having participated in the seasons before, Neeraj is yet to grab a medal at the event.
And then there is the Athletics World Championship in July.
Think ATP tournaments and compare them to a Grand Slam, only instead of four Slams a year, the World Championships roll by every two years.
Much like tennis, athletics' Diamond League events too have a season-ending finale, with qualification based on the points collected across the season. A first-place finish helps an athlete collect 8 points, second place earns them 4 points, while a third place gets them 2 points.
This season's Diamond League Final is being hosted by Zurich and will take place from 7-8 September. However, the tournament carries double the points from a Diamond League event and the athlete with the most cumulative points at the end of the event, in each of the 16 different disciplines, will win the Diamond Race trophy.
Neeraj's Main Rivals To Watch Out for
While the Indian javelin star has already thrown 89.30 m and 86.69 m in his two events this season, even his national record-breaking throw only puts him in the fifth spot this season.
Grenada's Anderson Peters, the 2019 World Champion, has emerged as the man to beat this season having crossed the 90-metre mark twice in the nine events he's competed in this year.
His throw of 93.07m from the Doha Diamond League is also the best of the season thus far. Tokyo Olympics silver medallist Jakub Vadlejch is the only other man to breach the 90 m mark this year, throwing 90.88 m also in Doha.
Oliver Helander (89.83m) of Finland, who beat Neeraj to the gold at the Paavo Nurmi Games, and Julian Weber who threw his personal best of 89.54 m are the men ahead of Neeraj this season.
Where Is Vetter?
How do you talk about Neeraj Chopra's rivals and not mention Johannes Vetter?
Calling Neeraj a rival of Vetter, going into the Olympics last year, would have been generous on the part of any writer, with the German javelin star having crossed the 90-metre mark in seven of the 10 events he competed in, before landing in Tokyo. His 96.29 m throw from the European Championships in May 2021 was the year's best throw, but still over a meter shy of his personal best of 97.76m from September 2020.
Under the floodlights in Tokyo, however, Vetter capitulated under pressure, in rainy conditions, and was eliminated after the first three throws and finished fifth with the best effort of 82.52m.
After Tokyo, he participated in six events, with the best throw of 89.60 m, winning gold in five.
2022 has seen him struggle with an inflammation on his shoulder, which forced him to pull out of June's German Championships and also the Paavo Nurmi Games, where he had earlier put in his entry. Vetter's only outing has been in Offenburg, where his 85.64 m throw bagged him the silver.
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