For a while, Neeraj Chopra found himself in a different territory on Saturday.
The trendsetter that he has become in the past one year, suddenly he had to play the catching-up game with his rivals. Leave alone a gold, doubts crept up in the mind of the millions whether he would at all be able to have a podium finish.
A World Championships javelin medal at stake in Eugene and the entire nation glued to the television (early on Sunday in this part of the world), the Olympic Games champion, who is known to seal the deal in his first two throws, was lagging behind.
Anderson Peters of Grenada had already made his intentions clear with throws of 90.21m and 90.46m. Olympic silver medallist Czech Republic’s Jakub Vadlejch and German Julian Webber were also ahead of the 24-year-old Indian.
Neeraj, who had a foul throw in his first attempt, recorded a poor 82.39 metres in his second and sort of got back to his groove with a 86.37m in the third.
Vadlejch surged ahead by producing his best mark of the night, 88.09m. Now Neeraj was needed to take the adversities in his stride and come up with a grand throw to stay in contention.
It came in the fourth. Everything — his leg, hip, blocking leg, the right arm and the throw — fell into place and the spear took flight in the evening sky of Eugene to land at 88.13 metres.
The customary exult, now-famous infectious smile and a thumbs-up sign to the screen followed. He knew he was back with a bang. As it turned out, it was enough to land him the silver even though it was way behind his personal best of 89.94 metres, achieved during the Stockholm Diamond League on June 30.
Peters, meanwhile, gave an impression as if he was in a training session. Even knowing that his 90.46 would be enough for him to retain the gold medal, Peters did not put his foot off the pedal. He saved his best for the last and 90.54 metres gave him his second World Championships gold. Vadlejch (88.09m) came third. Rohit Yadav, the other Indian in fray, finished at 10th in the 12-man field with a best throw of 78.72m.
The silver ended India’s 19-year wait for a medal at the World Championships. Anju Bobby Geroge had won a long jump bronze way back in 2003 in Paris. In a country where just qualifying for the final of a track and field event brings cheers, Neeraj now has won a gold and silver in two of the biggest events. And to say the nation is a bit disappointed that he hasn’t been able to win the yellow metal speaks volumes about what this young man has done to Indian athletics.
“Next year (Budapest will host the 2023 World Championships) I will try to better this,” he promised at the postevent news conference.
Wrestler Sushil Kumar had won two Olympic medals (bronze in 2008 and a silver in 2012) and a World Championship medal (2010); PV Sindhu has emulated the wrestler (silver in 2016 Rio and bronze at Tokyo Olympics last year and the World Championship gold in 2019); Abhinav Bindra has given us the first individual gold at the Olympics. Does Neeraj’s exploits, in a physically demanding and injury-prone discipline like javelin, make him the greatest ever sportsperson of this country? “He is a super athlete and right up there after Saturday’s performance. But it’s not fair on others to say Neeraj is the greatest ever. Abhinav, Sushil, Sindhu and others have excelled in their respective fields. You cannot take away that. Yes Neeraj, at this point in time, is ahead of his peers, but generalising is something I am not in favour of,” Jeev Milka Singh, son of the legendary Milkha Singh and himself a champion golfer, told The Telegraph from Edinburgh.
Agreed Sharath Kamal, one of India’s greatest table tennis players ever. “An Olympic gold and a silver today. Who has it? Still, it’s not easy to compare across different sports, let alone different generations in the same sport.” Neeraj’s silver came in trying conditions. The burden of expectations from a nation which just woke up to javelin throw after his gold medal-winning feat, the not-so-favourable wind and the fear of being vilified by critics. It’s not easy to be Neeraj Chopra these days. Had he missed out on a podium finish, there would have been murmurs of how the celebrations post August 7, 2021 ruined his chances. But this man has a tough mental makeup.
“I knew it’s a matter of one throw. Even when the chips were down I did not feel any pressure. I am happy that the fourth landed the way I wanted to. Yes, it could have gone further if the wind was behind my back. It’s a learning experience for me,” he said. Yes, he’s superstar. But even superstars at times need to dig deep.