The nature of javelin throwing — strong men trying to see how far they can fling a sharp-ended spear for national pride — lends itself fairly easily to militaristic metaphors.
“@Neeraj_chopra1 launches an absolute missile in the first round of the men’s javelin throw,” World Athletics posted on X on Friday after the Indian threw a monster 88.77m in qualification at Budapest’s National Athletics Center to book a place in the final of the Athletics World Championships.
Now throw in some geopolitics and a chance to enter the history books, and you have the makings of a blockbuster finish to the World Championships on Sunday.
As the Indian Olympic champion chases a historic gold, his biggest contender likely appears to be a fearsome rival from Pakistan. Indeed, if the 25-year-old Indian from Khandra, Haryana, stamped his class in qualifying, then the 26-year-old Commonwealth Games champion, Arshad Nadeem, who hails from Mian Channu in Pakistan’s Punjab province, too made a statement of intent with a throw of 86.79m, the second best in qualification.
There’s nothing remotely antagonistic in the relationship between the two throwers who will be trying to make history on Sunday night. Neeraj will look to become the first Indian world champion in athletics, and Nadeem will try to be the first from his country to place on the podium and snatch the gold.
“ Neeraj ke liye best of luck (Best of luck to Neeraj),” Nadeem said after making the final. “ Neeraj bhai, aap bhi aachha karen, hum bhi accha karen. Aapka naam hai world me, hamara bhi naam aye (Neeraj brother, you also do well, and I hope I also do well. You have a name in the world. I hope I also get a name in the world,” he said.
His words for the Indian aren’t out of the ordinary.
Just a few days ago, the start of Neeraj’s first warm-up session in the practice area next to the National Athletics Center was delayed by a few minutes. Nadeem was the cause of the delay. Although he himself had been in the gym, Nadeem took a break to request a few pictures with the Olympic champion. Neeraj obliged and, after an Instagram carousel’s worth of selfies had been clicked, began his training.
The two would take another picture in the warm-up venue on Friday morning. This one came at the end of the qualification session of the men’s javelin throw, where both finished on top of their groups.
Nadeem said he was looking forward to the final. “ Inshallah, final me maza ayega (God willing, we will have fun in the final),” he smiled.
It’s not the first time Nadeem’s used the word maza (fun). He had mentioned it even after the greatest triumph of his career, when he won gold at the 2022 Commonwealth Games, throwing a massive 90.18m to beat then reigning world champion Anderson Peters.
Neeraj, who won silver at the 2022 World Championships, had not been able to take part in the Commonwealth Games due to injury, and the Pakistani said the competition, as a result, felt incomplete. “I was missing Neeraj Chopra at this competition. I felt his absence here. If he were there, the competition would have been even better. When he gets fit, aage maza ayega (it will be fun),” he had said.
Nadeem had first developed a rapport with the Indian back in 2016, when the two had competed at the South Asian Games in Guwahati. Neeraj won that competition, while Nadeem took bronze. They would meet each other again at the Asian Games, where they again shared the same spots on the podium, and a famous picture of the two of them shaking hands on the podium went viral on social media. They would meet again at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, where the Indian took gold and the Pakistani finished 7th. At the Tokyo Olympics, where Neeraj won gold, and Nadeem finished fifth. At the 2022 World Championships, Neeraj took silver and Nadeem got fifth place.
Nadeem’s friendship with the Indian isn’t one-sided. Neeraj, a subedar in the Indian Army, came out in support of Nadeem after the latter was criticised for mistakenly picking up the Indian’s javelin at Tokyo. He would also congratulate Nadeem on Instagram, following his Commonwealth Games gold, for both the title and crossing 90m.
While the Indian will head into Budapest’s final as favourite, Nadeem is looking in ominous touch. He had elbow and knee surgeries last year following the Islamic World Games. He recovered and competed at the Pakistan National Games in May this year, winning gold with a throw of 78.02m. However, he suffered a knee injury in the competition and that forced him to miss the Asian Championships in Bangkok last month.
In qualifying on Friday, it seemed after Nadeem’s first throw that he was still struggling with his recovery as he only threw 70.63m. Later, he explained that the reason for the modest throw was that he was unused to the quick Mondo runway. “It’s a Mondo track, and I wasn’t very comfortable on it at the start. I’ve not trained on it before. As I threw more, I got more comfortable,” he said.
After a throw of 81.53m in his second attempt, Nadeem unleashed his group topping 86.79m, a season best, on his third throw. Nadeem’s coaches were overheard saying he could probably have thrown further, but was competing in slightly tighter shoes. His coaches say he will get a better pair for the final.
While the qualifying throw is some way from his personal best, Nadeem certainly seems quicker than he was at the Commonwealth Games. This is apparently a facet he has been working on since his return from injury.
This is not lost on those in Nadeem’s corner. “Earlier, I was missing speed in his run-up and he seemed almost in a standing position if you see his poses. Yesterday, when I witnessed him, it made me happy that he has gained good speed... now, it is the matter of converting that speed into the force behind the javelin,” Mohammad Akram Sahi, Pakistan Athletics Federation president, said earlier this month.
This sets the stage for an enthralling final in Budapest. Nadeem, though, insists he doesn’t want a contest with anyone. “ Mera mukabla kisi ke saath nahin hai (My fight is not with anyone else). My fight is with myself only. I did 90.18m at the Commonwealth Games last year and want to do better than that here. My body feels good. Inshallah, final me maza ayega (his go-to fun remark).”
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