Neeraj vs Nadeem: An India, Pakistan rivalry with a difference
There is no bad blood between the two and they are united by their pursuit of excellence
Neeraj Chopra doesn’t reach out for his mobile phone too much on competition day. On the rare instance he glanced through it before the World Championships final in Budapest last month, “the first thing (I saw) was India versus Pakistan”, as Chopra would reveal after becoming world champion.
Neeraj Chopra versus Arshad Nadeem is indeed India versus Pakistan, with a difference. There’s little of that bucketful of bickering on social media by people around a cricket match (even though the players themselves might exchange gifts and warm embraces) or some over-the-top promos from broadcasters (remember ‘mauka mauka’?). Or, in football’s case, an actual brawl between the players on the ground.
On the javelin field, there’s only bonhomie between the best of India and Pakistan, yet with the unflinching endeavour to continue pushing their own benchmarks and their country’s status in athletics. Expect nothing different from Chopra and Nadeem on the evening of October 4 at the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Centre Stadium, when the two will line up again in the javelin final a little over a month after scripting a 1-2 finish at the Budapest Worlds.
“I felt good that Arshad threw well," Chopra said in Budapest after his 88.17m heave got him gold while keeping a fighting Nadeem (87.82m) at bay. “We spoke and discussed how both our countries are growing now.”
Much like their competitiveness and camaraderie over the years since they first crossed paths with a javelin in hand. That was at the 2016 South Asian Games in Guwahati, where Chopra took gold (82.23m) and Nadeem bronze (78.33). A year later, they would meet again in India at the Bhubaneshwar Asian Championships. By that time, Chopra was crowned the world U-20 champion in an event where Nadeem finished 15th, and the Indian continued to consistently throw over 80m in triumphs in Bhubaneshwar and the 2018 Commonwealth Games even as Nadeem couldn't breach the mark.
When he did at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, he earned his space on the podium (bronze, 80.75m) in which Chopra stood tall with a gold and a massive 88.06m throw. That podium image of the two bowing for a handshake with their respective medals around the neck gave early indication of this India-Pakistan rivalry not being your quintessential chest-thumping kind.
More would come along. At the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 where Chopra stood out (gold, 87.58m) with Nadeem not too far behind (5th, 84.62m), the Indian put to rest the restless tribe on social media quick to criticise the Pakistan athlete for using Chopra’s javelin. A year later when Nadeem returned to competition at the Eugene Worlds after the Games due to a long injury layoff, silver medallist Chopra congratulated him for his fifth-place show. Months later when Chopra was away injured and Nadeem won the 2022 CWG gold with a stunning 90.18m throw, he acknowledged his missing competitor. “Unki kami mehsoos hui hai (I’ve felt his absence),” he said in Birmingham.
Both are set to be present in Hangzhou. Nadeem endured another injury-enforced pause for almost a year before his silver at the Budapest Worlds last month, while a groin injury has meant Chopra turning up for just five meets this year so far. Like his 90m-club entry in Birmingham showed, Nadeem can go really big on a given day while being a bit erratic otherwise. Chopra, the epitome of being consistently efficient while chasing the 90m-mark, has had all but one 85m-plus throws this year in three wins. The odd one out was at the Diamond League Final over the weekend, where he finished second (83.80m).
"He (Chopra) has his ways of winning events,” Nadeem was quoted as saying by Dawn on Thursday. “Initially, I used to be nervy and all, but now I’ve competed against him quite a lot so it’s not the same. (Hopefully) I’ll win gold in Hangzhou in my own way.”
The odds are with Chopra, though, to retain his Asian title in a season where he has added the world crown. Moments after he did so in Budapest, Chopra, wrapped in the tri-colour, called upon a flag-less Nadeem to join him for a photo.
"People make it to be a rivalry but there is no bad blood between us. Even today, he came up to me and we congratulated each other," Chopra said. “There is always that India-Pakistan pressure, and I am sure that will be amplified at the Asian Games.”