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Paris in sights, golden arm Neeraj eyes 90m mark at Diamond League

ByRutvick Mehta, Mumbai
May 10, 2024 05:40 AM IST

India will follow Chopra particularly closely in a year where he will try to defend his Olympic champion tag in less than three months in Paris

Seated in the company of Greek long-jumper and reigning Olympic champion Miltiadis Tentoglou, Australia’s world champion pole vaulter Nina Kennedy and 400m Tokyo Games gold medallist Steven Gardiner of the Bahamas, Neeraj Chopra gave an illustration on Thursday of how his feet are firmly on the ground despite scaling the pinnacle of world athletics

Neeraj Chopra in action during the men's Javelin final at Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, on October 4, 2023. (REUTERS)
Neeraj Chopra in action during the men's Javelin final at Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, on October 4, 2023. (REUTERS)

As one of the marquee athletes at the Doha Diamond League, India’s Tokyo-winning javelin thrower was asked about his growing popularity back home. “It’s not like cricketers,” Chopra replied with a smile. “But yes, a lot of people know me after Tokyo. It’s good, because now in India more people follow athletics.”

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India will follow Chopra particularly closely in a year where he will try to defend his Olympic champion tag in less than three months in Paris. And so, as he begins his 2024 season on Friday, a strong start will set the tone and script a statement for India’s biggest hope going into the Paris Games.

Chopra’s test of defending victories will begin in Doha, where he won last year in a season glittered by the World Championships and Asian Games gold. That season-best 88.88m effort in Hangzhou in October was Chopra’s last outing. Parking himself in Potchefstroom, South Africa and Antalya, Turkey for his off-season and pre-training training blocks since, Chopra has been eager to get his competitive juices flowing again. He is also slated to turn up at the Federation Cup in Bhubaneswar on May 15, which, if he does compete, will mark his first appearance in a domestic meet since becoming the Olympic and world champion.

“I’m ready to start tomorrow (Friday),” Chopra said in Doha. “I’ve been training well; I’ve also had some good throwing sessions coming into this event.

“I am in form, but, I don’t know...there are three throwers over 90m. I’m still not there,” he added.

They include Chopra’s close Czech rival Jakub Vadlejch (personal best 90.88m) — he came second in Doha last year but bettered the Indian in the Diamond League finals last September — Grenadian Anderson Peters (PB 93.07), who has had an underwhelming 2023 and start to 2024, and Kenya’s out-of-form Julius Yego (PB 92.72).

Chopra will also have Kishore Jena, his fellow Indian Asian Games medallist and Paris hopeful, for company on Friday evening.

The 90m mark, an oft-discussed issue in Chopra’s professional life over the last few years, was the buzzword again on Thursday. So much so that even Tentoglou, who like Chopra is the reigning Olympic and world champion in long jump, chipped in with a “I’ll be really happy if Neeraj throws 90m here” remark.

While the Indian has repeatedly stressed upon his strength of consistency over that one glory throw, he recently spoke about wanting to get the 90m monkey off his back quickly this season; preferably before Paris comes calling. Last year, Chopra, whose personal best remains 89.94m from two years ago, had hoped to cross the hallowed mark in Doha, an event known to deliver big throws. However, “too much headwind”, as he recalled a year on, meant Chopra had to settle for 88.67m and the win.

“I’m stuck between 88 and 90m. But I really want to break this barrier,” he said. “Maybe tomorrow, it will be good.”

Over the last three years after the pandemic-enforced pause, Chopra has had strong starts to a season. In 2021 his season-opening 88.07 in Patiala was the best of the year, in 2022 his 89.30 in Turku the second-best and in 2023 his 88.67 in Doha the third-best. Should that trend continue with a bullish beginning on Friday (90m or otherwise), it would bode well for him going into the rest of the season with Paris looming.

Chopra is aware of that, and has the Olympics lingering at the back of his mind in Doha. However, as someone who has had to deal with injury setbacks in the last couple of years — he missed the 2022 Commonwealth Games while a groin injury last year restricted his volume of competitions — remaining strong and healthy through the season is as much a priority as a strong start for Chopra in this Olympic year.

“My focus is to just stay healthy,” he said. “If I stay healthy, everything will go good.”

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