It’s VK… it’s ST… no it’s NC. LOL, we are just discussing who’s the GOAT in the modern Indian playground.Virat Kohli and Sachin Tendulkar may get the nod for obvious reasons, including Neeraj Chopra’s vote, but the way the story can unfold in the coming year may just change the trajectory of the argument. All roads lead to Paris for the Olympics, and all thoughts gear up to that golden question: “Will he, won’t he?”
It has been a fine year for Neeraj as he completed the task of ticking all the boxes in the champion athlete’s checklist. Olympics, World Athletics Championships, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, Diamond League Final, Asian Championships – been there, done that.
The ‘finish line’ is near for the young thoroughbred, who turned 26 on Christmas Eve. All the preparation, discipline, toil and sweat come down to one night and he knows very well that today’s adulation will turn into an illusion if tomorrow’s target is missed.
“They say a lion always takes a step back before attacking, I think of a setback in an athlete’s life is like that,” is a display of his resilience on the Olympics website, in a huge font size designed to drive across the thought with dramatic effect. And you often see him gather these failures in a bundle, only to take that inspiration for the extra step.
You hear his guttural roar, see his clenched fists when he executes that desired throw, share the feeling down deep when the javelin leaves his grip, live on the edge as he falls to rise. But the most important thing is that he has a grasp on life, and a hand on the heart. He is the people’s champion, a friend in need, a symbol of peace in a divided world. Not shy or scared of voicing his opinion on the wrestlers’ dilemma, he talked of the hurt “to see our athletes on the streets demanding justice”.
Neeraj had also brought to the MEA’s notice when there were “issues with Kishore Jena’s visa, preventing him from entering Hungary for the World Championships”. And who can forget the World champion calling silver-winning Pakistan rival Arshad Nadeem to join him for the photoshoot on the Budapest track?
In the Tokyo Games, Nadeem was seen with Neeraj’s javelin before the Indian’s first throw in the final leading to accusations of ‘tampering’ on social media. Chopra was taken aback by ‘the hurtful comments’.
“Sports is something that teaches us to walk together, and all javelin throwers share mutual respect and love,” he professed, thus piercing through the tentacles of political agenda.
“India versus Pakistan always makes good headlines, but in global events we have to focus on every competitor,” Neeraj said after clinching the World Championships gold. There will be many striving to cross barriers, and it takes only one bad day, a nervous itch or minimal distraction to bring years of prep tumbling down.
All games require different strategies, science, planning, diet, recovery etc. Throwing a javelin is like a symphony if you watch in slow motion but in real time, it’s all about milliseconds, variety of minute movements, the tension of the body at the point of release, the transfer of the feeling to the inanimate object… you get the drift. Mozart’s not playing, it’s heavy metal.
Then, there’s the constant tweaking. “It’s a bit like a Formula 1 car, you can always make small changes here and there and you can always find some small mistakes,” said Neeraj’s German rival Johannes Vetter.
He also stated that “90m is the new normal”, breaching it several times, but failing in Tokyo. Technical issues, conditions, fatigue, whatever the reason. It’s all about timing it right. Neeraj’s coach, German biomechanics expert Klaus Bartonietz, put India’s golden night in 2021 down to his ward’s mental freshness.
This year, Neeraj peaked at the right moments as his team managed his schedule conservatively because of a niggling muscle strain. Pain is part of an athlete’s daily life, pushing through it a champion’s ethos. Before the World Championships, he admitted he could not “even throw with a full run-up” but it was his “positive mindset” that spurred him on. And we all know the rest of the story.
What separates contenders from pretenders is mental toughness. Rewind to October and we recall the chaos surrounding Neeraj’s first throw at the Asian Games. It was at a gold-winning distance but not recorded because of so-called technical issues, and the conspiracy theories started brewing at the Hangzhou Olympic Stadium. If it was designed to throw him off, it was a futile effort.
With the presence of Kishore Jena, who had his own drama with the officials, Chopra rebooted and registered 88.88m with his fourth effort to claim gold. For India, it was a one-two finish with Jena claiming silver. “He pushed me to perform in my moment of doubt,” said Neeraj, appreciating his partner on the podium. “Mujhe pata tha bhai saab maar hi denge (I knew big brother would surpass me),” Jena quipped.
The 90m-mark continues to elude Neeraj, though. For someone who was inspired by watching Czech Jan Zelezny on YouTube – he of the 98.48m record – it was not meant to be this year because of his obvious discomfort and injury management. “I would keep working hard to improve my distance but I can do it only if I stay injury free,” he spoke of his limitations.
As Neeraj blew the candles on his birthday cake the night before Christmas, he must have made a wish for the New Year. Good health, for sure. Born with a sweet tooth, he must have indulged in a sizeable piece. But when the bells ring for 2024, the hunger will be different. The hunger will be for Olympic gold, again. “I don’t think I have achieved everything. I will work harder, push myself harder to win more medals and bring more laurels for my country,” he had promised.
Dreams do come true with self-belief and hard work, and NC’s no slacker. He could well be the GOAT.