Asian Games 2023: Unfazed Neeraj Chopra restarts global conquest with gold at Hangzhou

Neeraj Chopra pulled off his season’s best throw of 88.88m to secure gold at the Hangzhou Asian Games, fighting off a stiff challenge from compatriot Kishore Jena.

Published : Oct 05, 2023 08:55 IST , Hangzhou - 5 MINS READ

India’s Neeraj Chopra reacts during the Men’s Javelin Throw final at the Asian Games.
India’s Neeraj Chopra reacts during the Men’s Javelin Throw final at the Asian Games. | Photo Credit: Reuters/Jeremy Lee

India’s Neeraj Chopra reacts during the Men’s Javelin Throw final at the Asian Games. | Photo Credit: Reuters/Jeremy Lee

The lead-up to the men’s javelin final was all about Neeraj Chopra. Arshad Nadeem. Neeraj vs. Arshad. India vs. Pakistan. But when Nadeem pulled out on the eve of the final citing injury, many wondered if Neeraj would have any contender to push him on the field. But by the end of the evening, the men’s javelin throw final delivered the drama, thrill and some controversy, too.

Thirty minutes before the start of the event, Neeraj was going through his routine as the crowd came in droves into the Hangzhou Olympic Stadium on Wednesday evening. This was Chopra’s first visit to China since he became an international superstar. In the six years after his last throw in Jiazing, he has earned the titles of Olympic champion, Commonwealth Games champion, Asian Games champion, World Champion and Diamond League champion. He was back at the Asiad as he set on reconquering his titles in another cycle.

IN PICTURES: A look at Neeraj Chopra’s throws from his gold at the Tokyo Games to his gold at the Hangzhou Asian Games

But in a land where track and field athletes are among sporting royalties, not many had heard of who the Indian athlete was. One local supporter quizzed this reporter back, “Is it you?” while another asked “No. Is he your friend?” The reaction inside the venue to his name being read out in the PA got scattered obligatory applause, compared to the celebratory reception of Chinese Taipei’s Chao-Tsun Cheng, who came out before him. Even in Budapest for the World Championships, Neeraj was received with loud cheers.

ALSO READ | Neeraj defends gold medal, Sable, Harmilan grab silver, men’s relay-team on top

And if anyone had any doubts about who he was, they only needed to wait five more minutes before finding out for themselves. As Neeraj’s first throw’s trajectory became more apparent, a loud audible amazement, accompanying it, filled the stadium. Neeraj, too, as he so often does, raised his arms in delight and turned towards his bench before the throw had landed. The effort appeared well over 87m. But there was no confirmation for the next 10 minutes and everything came to a standstill right after.

While the triple jumpers, high jumpers, and middle distance runners were going about their business, the pause was hit on the javelin final. Neeraj stood next to the officials’ table, waiting to get the reading of his throw. Three judges were at the opposite end of the field, trying to figure out where Neeraj’s javelin landed.

In between, he would go and apologise to his fellow competitors. “I went and kept telling them all ‘Sorry. Sorry. I am trying to figure out my throw distance’,” Neeraj later said. 

Were there officiating errors in Neeraj Chopra’s men’s javelin final at Asian Games?

After several questionable judgements on the track towards the Indian athletes over the last few days, people on social media alleged conspiracy. An enraged Anju Bobby George, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) vice-president, added, “It’s calculated. They are trying to cheat us.”

Neeraj claimed that the officials told him that Kuwait’s Alazemi Abdulrahman had thrown immediately after the Indian’s effort before his throw was recorded, making it difficult for the judges to measure the mark of his landing. After realising that the issue was hampering the rest of the competition on what was a chilly and windy night, he decided to take up the offer of a retake of his first throw and crack on. But his official first throw was well below the actual first throw, and read 82.38m.

“This is the first time I had seven throws in a javelin event,” he would laugh over it later. “I did feel a bit bad mentally [then] that such a good throw was ruined, especially at such a big competition.” 

There were moments when it felt like even his second throw of 84.49m -- which kept him first after two rounds -- might be enough to get him the gold. After Neeraj’s third attempt was flagged by the officials, compatriot Kishore Kumar Jena bettered his previous throw by over 7m and achieved a personal best of 86.77m to push the defending champion into second.

Neeraj, however, wasn’t fazed. In fact, he went and embraced Jena on his new personal landmark. “When I saw Jena throwing so well and the others pushing themselves, I thought ‘ maarna hai yaar, ek throw baccha hai mera paas’ (I need to get it right, I have that throw left in me),” said the 26-year-old.

Unfortunately for Jena, that throw came in the very next round and Neeraj would achieve his season best throw next by going 88.88m to reclaim the pole position. There have been times when Neeraj has lost steam after his opening three rounds. But this year, in the final three rounds, he has thrown five 85m+ throws across seven events. And it’s even more remarkable that he achieved a season best in what was his final tournament of the year, which has involved plenty of travel and trouble with injuries.

Jena pushed him again with another personal best mark of 87.54m but Neeraj had done enough. At the end of the final, Neeraj embraced Jena and picked him up before they celebrated arm-in-arm. The pair then stood on the sidelines and cheered on the Indian men’s 4x400m relay team, who also clinched gold.

As Neeraj gleefully jumped onto the top of another podium, China also got a closer glimpse of his talents. “He was throwing past the 80m mark all the time. The Indian champion,” said an impressed Kai, a spectator-turned fan at the Hangzhou stadium.

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