File image of Neeraj Chopra.(PTI) Exclusive
File image of Neeraj Chopra.(PTI)

How an Olympic dream got hit

  • Neeraj Chopra finds himself in the bleak reality of not having competed in an international meet in 15 month.
By Avishek Roy
UPDATED ON MAY 17, 2021 02:07 PM IST

“It is my first Olympics. I can’t just keep training here, go to Tokyo and win a medal from amongst the world’s best throwers. I need to compete against them before that,” said Neeraj Chopra in a media interaction two days ago.

“Here” is the National Institute of Sports (NIS) in Patiala, which Chopra has called home on and off for over a year now, a time in which he has seen himself go from being something genuinely rare—an Indian medal prospect in track & field—to becoming something depressingly commonplace—a demoralised Indian athlete bemoaning missed opportunities.

With just over two months to go to the Tokyo Olympics, Chopra finds himself in the bleak reality of having not competed in an international meet in 15 months.

To be sure, the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics may be in jeopardy itself, with rising Covid-19 cases in Japan and a fresh set of restrictions announced on Friday.

Chopra has not competed at the global stage for two years now. Before the throw that put him on the path to Tokyo, he had spent all of 2019 out of competition with an elbow injury to his throwing arm that required an intricate surgical procedure and long rehabilitation. His last major international competition was the Jakarta Asian Games in August where he won gold with the then national record of 88.06. He then competed in a few events in Europe and in India.

Despite the lack of meets or international exposure, Chopra’s form has not dipped—this year, he has participated at the Indian Grand Prix (IGP) and Federation Cup in March. He threw 88.07m at the IGP (national record) in Patiala and it remains the world’s third-best throw in this Covid-hit season. Germany’s Johannes Vetter, the 2017 World Championships gold medallist, has crossed 90m twice this year. Chopra is yet to touch 90m. And while all the world’s top throwers are competing in Diamond Leagues and other tournaments around the world, Chopra has been watching all his plans get scuppered one after another.

“I can consistently throw above 85-86 and that’s my strength. I know I can go beyond 90m only if I get competition,” Chopra said.

The Athletics Federation of India (AFI) first picked Turkey for a competition and training programme for the Olympic bound javelin throwers— Chopra, Shivpal Singh and Annu Rani. But a day before the throwers were to leave, on April 22, the devastating second wave of the pandemic in India meant that Turkey increased the quarantine period for all Indians coming in from one week to two. The throwers cancelled the trip.

“Some countries are asking for 21-day quarantine. A week or 10 days is still fine but more than that the training we have done so far goes to waste,” said Chopra.

The AFI began a scramble to see if any other country would accept the throwers—Poland and Czech Republic were tried—but they were consistently denied visas.

Chopra said there were talks with Finland too, to train at their Olympic training centre, but they also refused. He said Sweden is one of the centres being tried. It is learnt Uppsala—the summer training base of pole vault sensation Armand Duplantis—is being explored as an option.

“The situation is such that no country is willing to accept people from India with the new (Covid) strain and everything. Every country is backing off on this. We are trying to do whatever we can do. We have been in talks with MEA (ministry of external affairs). We are in talks with lots of places in Europe regarding this,” said AFI president Adille Sumariwalla.

Yet, most of India’s Olympic medal contenders are already training and competing outside of India. On May 11, the entire shooting team, a 26-member contingent, left for Zagreb, Croatia, where they will be training and competing before heading for the Olympics straight from there.

Wrestler Vinesh Phogat left India in April for training in Bulgaria. In January and February she was accompanied by her personal coach Woller Akos for a training camp in Hungary and Poland. She has also competed in three tournaments.

Wrestler Bajrang Punia trained at the Cliff Kean Wrestling Club in Michigan from December till February before competing in the Rome Ranking Series and the Asian championships in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in April. He is now in India.

On May 1, weightlifter Mirabai Chanu flew to St Louis, US, after the Sports Authority of India cleared her programme during an emergency meeting so she could continue her training under strength and conditioning coach Dr Aaron Horschig. She had a two-month long stint under Horschig in the US from October last year as well.

In all of that time, Chopra has been languishing in Patiala. The AFI said that they had a training programme ready for Chopra, beginning with the Federation Cup in March.

“There was a training schedule in place and you cannot change it. If there is an off-season it cannot be in Europe, he had to be in India. And who knew about the second wave,” said Sumariwalla.

In some ways, luck indeed has played a role in Chopra’s training programme going awry. Last year, when India was closing its borders in March, Chopra made a hasty return from his training base in Turkey. Soon after his return, the country went into a sudden, unprecedented lockdown. Chopra was trapped at NIS where athletes were given orders to not even step out of their rooms. From last July, when some of the more draconian lockdown restrictions were lifted, Chopra has been training at NIS with a group of throwers and SAI’s German bio-mechanical expert Klaus Bartonietz.

Also in July, track & field competitions like the Diamond League restarted in Europe. Vetter, for example, threw in 10 competitions across Europe between July and September 2020.

He got a massive throw of 97.76, the second best of all time, at the Continental Gold meet at Kamila Skolimowska Memorial in Chorzow, Poland on September 6. This year he has competed in three events, including the European Throwing Cup.

Why did Chopra miss out on the July-October European season?

“After the lockdown restrictions were lifted our athletes started training only at the end of July,” offered an AFI official who did not wish to be named. “He could not have just gone without any training for five months.”

Towards the end of last year, when it was off-season in Europe, there were discussions to hold a camp for javelin throwers in South Africa at the North-West University (NWU) in Potchefstroom, a renowned throws training centre, but a new strain of Covid-19 was surging through South Africa at the time and the idea was shelved.

“From December-February you can’t train in Europe because of cold conditions and South Africa is the best place that time because the weather is warm and other European athletes also come there,” Chopra said.

In December-January, with the winter setting in, Chopra and other elite throwers moved to warmer Bhubaneswar for training. At that time, he was looking to compete in five-six international competitions.

“It is very important to get high-intensity competition against the top throwers of the world before the Olympics, so I need to play in at least six international competitions before the Olympics. I also need to give time for recovery and training. So, the events have to be well spaced out, maybe one or two big events every month,” Chopra had said during an interaction on January 23.

None of that happened. Even if Chopra manages to get to Europe soon, he is sure to miss the next meet in the Diamond League Series, the Muller Grand Prix in Gateshead, England, from May 23.

There are six more Diamond League meets before the Olympics begin, but javelin features only in London meet on July 13. Besides there are other three to four events in Europe where Chopra can compete.

The AFI is not sure if Chopra will be allowed to compete in these events even if he makes it to Europe.

“Some countries will allow (travel), some might not allow, we will have to figure it out,” said Sumariwalla.

The time for figuring this out though, is fast slipping from Chopra’s grasp.

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