He might be an icon for millions of Indian athletes today, but back when he was a youngster early in his journey in a sport that had little tradition of success in the country, Neeraj Chopra had few domestic role models.
He would instead idolise three-time Czech Olympic champion holder Jan Zelezny, spending hours watching videos of the world record holder on Youtube.
Now an Olympic champion and a world silver medallist himself, Neeraj’s admiration for Zelezny is reciprocated by the Czech great. Speaking to Sportstar, the 57-year-old who won a total of four medals at the Olympics and 5 at the World Championships lauded Neeraj’s achievements and said the 25-year-old from Khandra near Panipat could well emulate his own feats – win multiple Olympic titles and even possibly claim the world record.
“I think Neeraj has already achieved so many things at such a young age. He is the Olympic champion. For an athlete, that is the greatest competition you can win. He is also a World championship silver medalist. There is still a lot of time for him to achieve even more. Soon, another Olympics will be held and he is among the candidates for the gold,“ Zelezny told Sportstar.
Zelezny and Neeraj have met in the past too but the Indian has admitted being tongue-tied on those occasions. While Neeraj’s never really said so himself, in many ways though it was Zelezny’s success that opened the doors for someone like Neeraj.
In contrast to the physical giants who dominated the sport of javelin throw before him, Zelezny was almost puny – just about six foot – with more of a runner’s build than a throwing monster. His ability to propel the javelin to distances never accomplished again wasn’t due to brute strength but elasticity and a well drilled throwing technique.
“That is the interesting thing about javelin throw,“ Zelezny explains.
“The javelin is relatively light so you do not have to be the tallest nor the strongest to throw far. The performance consists of an approximately 30m run so you have to be as fast as you can. Moreover, you need to be well coordinated to handle the technique. The one who has all of these might become successful. It would be fun to watch someone, who is 2 meters tall and has all these things but usually that does not happen,“ he says.
It’s a principle that the rest of the world took note of. Competition fields in the event- are routinely one of the most diverse in athletics. Neeraj is one of those who drew inspiration too. In a video he posted on his YouTube account last year, Neeraj had said as much. “When I searched for the javelin world record, I came across Jan Zelezny. When I saw his throw of 98.48 meters, I instantly knew he was the best in the world and started following him,” he says in the video.
In time, Neeraj would seem to emulate every aspect of Zelezny – from the trademark long locks held up with a headband to the moment of release of the javelin where he would fling himself off his feet with the force flowing through his body. He even seemed to pick up a trademark Zelezny warm up tic.
Zelezny would tap his front left leg and twist the right ankle as if squashing an imaginary insect on the ground – priming his muscles for the final block that transfers momentum to the spear. Watch Neeraj just before he makes ‘that’ throw at Tokyo and he does exactly that.
Despite the commonalities, Zelezny credits Neeraj for being his own athlete even as he appreciates the fact that the star Indian athlete admits to being inspired by him.
“I can see some similarities like the technique or physical parameters. The technique is not exactly the same but it is clear that we came from the same basics. It is a good feeling knowing that the technique I used is still suitable for today’s elite athletes. We are not the same but we share some traits and it is a heart-warming feeling,“ he says.
- Zelezny backs Neeraj to break 90m barrier-
No stranger to the weight of expectations on himself during his playing career, Zelezny felt too much is being made of the fact that Neeraj is yet to break the 90m barrier. c backed the youngster to accomplish that achievement.
Zelezny, who made a record 33 throws over 90m over the course of his career said what was in Neeraj’s favour was the fact he still had many years to go to reach his peak as an athlete and that he had shown an ability to handle pressure which was critical.
“Neeraj just needs to stay healthy. Besides this, it is just a matter of time. There is no reason why he could not get that 90m throw. He is young and talented and knows how to manage pressure well. After winning the Olympics, he became a superstar and he handled it perfectly. Again, if he stays healthy he is going to throw even more than 90m,“ he says.
Indeed should Neeraj stay physically fit, Zelezny says he can see him potentially breaking his World record throw of 98.48m that’s stood since being set in 1996.
“When I was retiring, I saw (Finland’s) Tero Pitkamaki throwing really far with ease. Recently it was Vetter. Neeraj is among the candidates as well, even though he has not thrown 90m yet. The peak form is around 30 years of age so the one who does that needs to be injury-resistant,“ he says.
Zelezny said Neeraj’s biggest challenge wouldn’t come on the field but off it. “I think the biggest challenge for him will be off the track. A lot of people will try to exploit him as his popularity rises. Only a few will try to help him without expecting any direct benefit so he has to pick the right ones,“ Zelezny says.
And where once, he had lacked rivals in India, Neeraj’s impact, Zelezny says, could see India eventually become one of the strongest nations in the javelin throw.
“If I were looking for talents, I would go to India. Neeraj basically opened a new market. Cricket is the national sport here and the movement is actually quite similar to the one in javelin throw. With that amount of people, I am sure I would find a high number of special individuals. There are 10 million people in the Czech Republic and we have achieved a lot so far (Jakub Vadlejch is the 2020 Olympic silver medallist and the World leader this year). In India, the potential must be enormous.“
(Neeraj Chopra, the Olympic champion in men’s javelin throw will be in action at the World Athletics Championships 2023 on Friday (August 25) at 1:40 PM IST, when the qualification round gets underway. The final will be held on Sunday.)
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