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Poking beehives, stealing mangoes and fighting with friends…that was boyhood in the hinterland for Neeraj Chopra, the athlete whose javelin struck gold at the just-concluded Commonwealth Games. As a child, his weakness was food. It came with too many calories, and too much love. Dollops of fresh cream and choorma, a fat-friendly mix of roti, ghee and sugar, fed by a doting grandmother meant Neeraj stepped into his teens chubby and flabby. The family elders had a simple solution: hit the gym.
The nearest one was a fitness centre in Panipat, about 15km from his village, Khandra, in east-central Haryana. Little did he know that the town, site of three medieval battles, would change his life — just as it had altered the course of history centuries ago.
Near the gym in Panipat stood Shiva-ji stadium, a popular magnet for dozens of ambitious athletes from neighbouring villages. Neeraj was jogging in the stadium in the winter of 2010 when he caught the eye of javelin thrower Jai Choudhary, aka Jaiveer.
Jai, a marginal farmer’s son from Binjhol village, recalls how it all began. “One evening at the stadium I just asked him to throw the javelin. It travelled about 35-40m which was pretty impressive for a first-timer. What I liked more was the way he threw it. Neeraj used to be overweight those days. But his body was pretty flexible,” says Jai. Neeraj acknowledges the role Jai played in his life: “I started throwing javelin after watching him. He is like my elder brother.”
As an event, javelin throw was part of the ancient Olympics. Said to evolve from the use of spear in hunting, the sport combines strength, speed and flexibility. A few exceptions aside, European athletes have lorded over the event. Before Neeraj’s gold at Gold Coast, India had never won a javelin medal at the Commonwealth Games, forget the Olympics.
Having spotted his potential, Jai was keen that Neeraj focus on the sport. The teenager’s family agreed but raising resources was a challenge. At Khandra, the family of four brothers, 16 members in all, owns a combined eight acres of farmland, two buffaloes and three cows. “Three of us are employed in modest private jobs. Neeraj’s involvement in sports meant juggling resources,” says uncle Surendra.
Practice javelins cost Rs 15,000-20,000 but a quality javelin used in international competitions can set you back by Rs 1 lakh or more, says Jai. Quality sneakers with spikes cost more than Rs 10,000. “We wanted to reconstruct our ancestral house. We put that plan on hold and focused on Neeraj,” says Surendra.
In 2011, a group of four athletes, including Neeraj and Jai, shifted to Panchkula Athletics Nursery for training. “Coach Naseem Ahmad supported us there,” Neeraj says. In the first next few years, he blossomed as a young athlete, making a clutch of podium finishes at home and abroad. It was a moment of serendipity for every Indian sports lover when he created a new record of 86.48m in the World U-20 Championships in Poland in 2016. At Gold Coast, the javelin landed one centimetre short, at 86.47m. IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) records show his was the second-best outdoor throw in men’s javelin this year.
Bigger goals — a medal at Tokyo 2020 —beckon under the tutelage of the legendary Uwe Hohn. But the 20-year-old is taking it one step at a time: the elite Diamond League in Europe first, followed by the Asian Games in Jakarta in August this year. “He’s a special talent. He can throw as far as 95m, ” says 27-year-old Jai whose own career, meanwhile, has been plagued by injuries. “I was out of action for years. Now I am back, training hard,” he says.
“I want him to be fit. It would be great if we both participate in a top competition,” says Neeraj, who is also a naib subedar with Rajputana Rifles.
Bolstered by earlier cash rewards, Neeraj’s family is now building a two-storeyed baithak with six rooms. The ancestral home, though, remains to be rebuilt. A quote hangs on the wall in the drawing room: “A single idea can light up your life.” Who knows that better than Neeraj Chopra?
Won a gold medal at the Asian Athletics Championship while breaking the men’s javelin meet record with an effort of 85.23 meters. Won a javelin silver at the Asian Grand Prix in Jiaxing, China to qualify for the IAFF World Championships. He threw a distance of 83.32m. Won silver medals in the javelin events during the first two legs of the Asian Grand Prix in China’s Jinhua and Jiaxing with throws of 82.11m and 83.32m respectively.
His performance in Jiaxing sealed his passage to the IAFF World Championships (failed to qualify for the final). Finished with in the 10-man elite field with a best effort of 84.67m at the prestigious IAFF Athletics Diamond League in Paris.
India’s flag bearer at this Asian Games, Chopra has emerged as the country’s best athlete on the international stage after the exit of long jumper Anju Bobby George. The Haryana javelin thrower, who is already among the best in the world, won his first big gold at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast. In Jakarta, he will face serious challenge from the Chinese and South Koreans.
Gold at the Asiad
Neeraj Chopra is like some homespun Greek legend. A young, wild-haired Apollo borrowing Athena’s spear and infusing it with Zeus’s thunderbolt wrath. Running in with the weapon of choice, gaining propulsion to lunge in the air and crash onto the floor in that most unusual of follow-throughs, Neeraj strode upon the Asian Games athletics programme in the only way he can as the spear soared and soared in the humid Jakarta air.
He added yet another feather to his burgeoning young career with a thumping win in the men’s javelin – his 88.06m far and wide beyond the second-placed 82.22m by China’s Liu Qizhen, and Arshad Nadeem of Pakistan, who took bronze. It was the sixth best throw of the season, bettering the national record he himself set earlier this year – 87.43m at the Doha Diamond League in May. On Monday, it seemed so effortless, so easy, almost as if he were flinging toothpicks into the air and they were landing where he wanted them to. Yet, we knew of the magnitude of the 20-year-old’s effort when he still missed the Games record by a mere 1.09m, set by Liu’s countryman, Zhao Qinggang with his 89.15m at the 2014 Incheon Games.
Neeraj, who burst onto the athletics scene with a U-20 World Championship gold in 2016, was in emulation mode on Monday. He became the first Indian athlete to win a gold in the Commonwealth and Asian Games in the same year since the great Milkha Singh in 1958 (400m gold in Cardiff and Tokyo). Also, India had last finished on the javelin podium way back at the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi, when Gurtej Singh won a bronze for the nation. “Of all medals I have won so far, this one takes the cake,” said the Panipat-boy later. “I had a good outing and I am happy with it. I was expecting to set an Asian Games record, it did not happen, but I will take it,” he added.
With Neeraj, Indians featured in seven athletics finals at the GBK Main stadium on Monday, and ended up finishing with three more silver in track and field. Dharun Ayyasamy set a new national mark in men’s 400m hurdles, veteran Sudha Singh (women’s 3000m steeplechase) and daughter of a daily wage earner, Neena Varakil (women’s long jump), also finished second to add to India’s medal tally long before the hinterland legend was capping the day with his powerful javelin bolts. It was India’s second gold in the Asian Games here after Tajinderpal Singh Toor’s in shot put two days earlier.
The 21-year-old Dharun, a thirdyear college student, pushed himself hard to settle for silver in the 400m hurdles where Qatar’s Abderrrahman Samba finished first with a Games record timing of 47.66 sec. Dharun’s feat at 48.96 was better than thirdplaced Takatoshi Abe of Japan (49.12). The man from Tamil Nadu bettered the 11-year-old national mark of Joseph Abraham set at the World Championships in Osaka in 2007.
Steeplechaser Sudha, winner of the gold in the 2010 Asian Games, came out with a silver here, but she had no qualms. Sudha had a slow start to the race and finished with a timing of 9:40.03, behind Bahrain’s Winfred Yavi (9:36.52). The bronze was won by Thi Oanh Nguyen of Vietnam (9:43.83). “I had a slow first one km, but I was faster thereafter. In Incheon (Asian Games), I had a better timing but had no medals to show for my effort. My target here was to win a medal and the timing was incidental,” she said.
The 32-year-old said that her critics had written her off due to her age, but she was happy to prove them wrong with the silver. She also said that she will be in fray for the 2020 Olympics. “If I am performing, I should keep competing,” she said.
Neena shone in the evening in the long jump even when she finished behind gold medal winner Thi Thu Thao Bui of Vietnam who jumped to a distance of 6.55m, her season best. Neena was a close second with 6.51 while Xioaling Xu of Chian took the bronze at 6.50. The girl from Kerala had deliberately delayed her arrival in Jakarta in order to avoid the “misfortune” she had to endure in Gold Coast in April.
Among other Indians in the final, Anu Raghavan and Jauna Murmu came fourth and sixth respectively in women’s 400m hurdles, while Shivpal Singh had just one throw out of six due to an elbow injury to finish 8th in men’s javelin. Nayana James failed to qualify for final and finished 10th in women’s long jump. Chinta came 11th in women’s 3000m steeplechase, Santosh Kumar finished 5th in men’s 400m hurdles. Shaker Lal Swami came 8th in men’s 3000m steeplechase, while Chethan Balasubramanya was 8th in men’s high jump.
Gold at Sotteville Athletics
India’s star javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra comfortably won the gold at the Sotteville Athletics meet in France, beating a competitive field which included 2012 London Olympics gold-medallist Keshorn Walcott. Chopra’s throw of 85.17m put him way ahead of the field, including Moldova’s Andrian Mardare (81.48m) and Lithuania’s Edis Matusevicius (79.31m), who finished second and third respectively.
Walcott of Trinidad and Tobago came up with a throw of 78.26m, which was only enough for fifth place. The 20-year-old Indian from Panipat had first made headlines when he won the gold in the 2016 World Junior Championship with a record throw of 86.48m.
He also won the gold at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast earlier this year before breaking the national record with a 87.43m effort at the Doha Diamond League.
Gold at Savo, Finland
Star javelin thrower Neeraj Choprs won a gold in the Savo Games in Finland beating his Chinese Taipei rival Chao-Tsun Cheng as the duo warmed up for the Asian Games.
Neeraj, the reigning Commonwealth Games gold medallist and Asian season leader, threw 85.69m in the event held at Lapinlahti, Finland, where he is undergoing training as part of preparations for the Asian Games. Cheng managed 82.52m to take the second place.
The 23-year-old Cheng is the only Asian to have thrown the javelin beyond 90m. He threw 91.36m during the World University Games last year to shatter the Asian record of 89.15m set by Zhao Qinggang of China at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon.