Usain Bolt could run the 100m in about nine-and-a-half seconds. That was mighty impressive. But Neeraj Chopra can lift the mood of a nation with more than a billion people sky high just a little bit faster.
It’s been six days of grinding toil for Indian athletes at the National Athletics Centre in Budapest. India’s top athletes have struggled. The schedule, the level of competition, the scale of the event, the weight of expectations and a lack of mental fortitude are among the talking points.
Friday throws up an unseasonably hot Budapest morning as reigning Olympic javelin champion Neeraj steps on the field. A quarter of an hour later, there is another 20-minute wait for India’s biggest medal hope at Budapest to get his chance to throw in the qualification round of the men’s javelin throw.
The omens aren’t great. Former Olympic champion’s Keshorn Walcott twists his ankle in warm-up and is out of the reckoning.
Neeraj stretches. Takes his groin through the range of motion. He has had trouble with the groin this season. Cue more anxiety. Before his turn in Group A of qualifying, the other 16 throwers have had their chance and no one has met the automatic qualification standard of 83m. Maybe, the conditions are not great.
More time for paranoia to set in. Finally, the 25-year-old Indian gets to his mark. Neeraj smacks his thighs, twists his body and gets on with it. He doesn’t gesture to the Indians in the crowd or those watching on TV but he might as well have said, ‘Relax, guys. I’ve got this.’
About nine-and-a-half seconds of sheer awesomeness later, you are left feeling a little foolish. World Championships? What’s the fuss all about?
The world witnesses Neeraj, over 19 strides, build up speed, then execute a firm block to harness all that speed, then launch the javelin, control his tumble in follow through, and stop just shy of the foul line. He doesn’t even wait for the javelin to land. He nonchalantly turns his back, does the (trademark pending) ‘are you not entertained’ arms wide celebration. He also throws in a languorous fist pump for good measure, like a fast bowler might after having just sent a tailender’s stumps cartwheeling. Then, the distance pops up. It is 88.77m, a season’s best.
Neeraj is more than 5m over the automatic qualifying mark. Across two groups and 36 athletes, just three meet the automatic standard. Only Neeraj does it in one throw.
One and done! Neeraj couldn’t have got his campaign for World Championships gold underway in any more dominant fashion. He’s made a habit of this. He did it in Tokyo, where he won gold.
Part of what makes champion players champions is how they make the incredibly difficult look routine. Neeraj did that in Budapest. One of his top challengers, Germany’s Julian Weber shakes his hand and pats him on his back. Neeraj’s coach, Klaus Bartonietz, gives him a rare double thumbs up. Neeraj throws in a couple of tips for fellow Indian Manu DP, who also makes the final. Neeraj waves to the sizable Indian contingent, many of whom have spent significant amounts of money, to see him live.
Neeraj spends another 15 minutes carefully folding and packing away his kit. In the mixed zone, he gives shout outs to the Chandrayaan-3 moon landing mission, and chess player R Praggnanandhaa’s recent FIDE World Cup heroics.
International media asks him about being an inspiration for Indian athletes. They don’t ask him anything about his qualification round because it’s almost taken for granted that he’s going to go through.
But just because Neeraj makes it look easy, doesn’t mean it is. “ Aise nahin hai ki pressure ko bandhu bana ke rakha hai (It’s not that I’ve made pressure my friend),” he jokes.
His ability has been built not just on incredible talent, but also hard work and clear-eyed preparation. Indeed, the days when everything looks easy have been built on days when they have been hard. “Don’t be disappointed after a loss. Don’t get too excited after a win. If you lose, just go out and train again. If you win just go outside and train again also,” he said on the eve of the competition.
The inspiration for making one and done throws in qualification came from the 2017 Worlds in London where he didn’t make the final. “I took things easy then. I learned that I have to go hard at the start. I can’t just give 70 per cent and think I’ll give everything in the final,” he says.
Dealing with the morning start and the delayed throwing order has also come with experience. “I knew I had a morning session which comes with its own problems. I learned from the Tokyo Olympics that if I warm up a bit too early, it gets hard. It’s even tougher if you are the 18th thrower. I knew it would take time for me to get my first attempt,” he says.
Neeraj shares he spoke to long jumper Murali Sreeshankar, who had come to Budapest in tremendous shape but found his body tightening up as he came on as the 15th jumper in qualifying. “Sree told me he had warmed up well, but because his jump was towards the end, his muscles were no longer loose. So, I knew I didn’t want to warm up too much too soon. I knew I had to keep my energy till the end, ” he says. “So, in the warm-up field, I didn’t take any warm-up throws. I just did some stretching.”
He wasn’t doing more because Neeraj knew he didn’t have to impress anyone in the warm-up arena. He might be in an event with no lack of killers, but the Indian knows he is one of the big guns, too. “I’ve already competed with these guys. There’s nothing special about being next to them. When we are warming up, in the field events especially, the biggest factor before the competition is your mindset. When I came to the competition field, I made some easy throws. I wasn’t trying to put a lot of effort, but just find the right line to throw. Understanding your game is important. It’s very nice if you have great supporters and coaches, but only athletes can understand their body,” he says.
But he is also humble enough to admit that not everything goes right. “I actually had a problem. The track is a little bit slick and I slipped after I made my release. When I landed, my finger just about missed the (foul) line. It just about came short, otherwise that effort would have been wasted. I thought it’s going to be a foul, but it’s fine,” he says.
Neeraj finished on top of qualification, just like he did in Tokyo, but he is not thinking too far ahead. “Just do some cooling down. Do a little bit of stretching. Tomorrow, I’ll do a bit of speed work,” he says. The final of the javelin event will be on Sunday evening. It’s a long wait. There’s plenty of time for nerves to jangle. Maybe, they will for the rest of us. If they do, take a deep breath and wait for Neeraj to do what he does.
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