Neeraj Chopra winds down a sparkling year with Diamond League Champion title

Neeraj Chopra’s 88.44 metres in Round 2 proves to be the winning throw, Czech Jakub Vadlejch is second with 86.94 metres.

Neeraj Chopra of India competes in the Javelin Throw Men during the Weltklasse IAAF Diamond League international athletics meeting at the Letzigrund stadium in Zurich, Switzerland, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)

The first Indian to win a track and field gold at the Olympics, the first Indian to win a silver at the World Championship is now the first to win the title of Diamond League Champion.

Neeraj Chopra, the 24-year-old, is turning into a hoarder of medals and trophies. Not satisfied with the famous gold in Tokyo and the historic silver in Eugene, Chopra had set sights on the glittering trophy given to winners of the Diamond League final in Zurich. Just an hour after winning the World Championship silver in July, Chopra was talking about his next target — being a Diamond League champion.

Like the greats, he has willed himself to achieve his target. A groin injury suffered during the World Championships was overcome and so were the challengers.

In the absence of double world champion Anderson Peters (recovering after a brawl), Chopra was the favourite to win. He once again lived up to his reputation of delivering in the big finals. There were a bunch of fans displaying ‘Chopra Go’ alphabet cards, a sign of how popular he had become over the past year.

Wearing an orange jersey and a headband to keep his hair from falling into his eye as he gains speed on the runway (he had cut his hair before the Olympics to keep it out of his face), Chopra found his range in his second attempt. His first attempt was a foul and Czech Republic’s Jakub Vadlejch had improved from 84.15 metres to 86 metres in Round 2 to remain the early leader.

Chopra wouldn’t have been perturbed by the distance of the Czech thrower. There was a big throw around the corner, Chopra knew it and so did everyone watching.

As the javelin left this hand, Chopra turned around, let out a roar and raised his right hand in the air without caring to look how far the spear had gone. This mini-celebratory routine is one Chopra has made his own. This part war cry and part statement of intent is not aimed at dissing anyone rather it precedes what is bound to be a medal-winning throw. A few seconds later, Chopra turned back to see how far he had thrown. He pumped his right fist and bellowed into the night sky. He had produced 88.44 metres to go into the lead and it was up to the rest to catch him.
Chopra wasn’t pushed to the limit here like he was by Peters in the World Championship final. However, he still threw a longer distance in Zurich than he had at Eugene (88.13).

Chopra followed this up with 88 metres in the third round and then dipped to 86.11 in the fourth.

Vadlejch fouled his third attempt but came up with 86.94 to try and gnaw at Chopra’s lead. But Chopra had done enough to win. Vadlejch, the only athlete in the six-man field to break the 90-metre barrier, couldn’t get close to his personal best. His fifth and sixth rounds were 83.95 metres and a foul. Chopra’s penultimate throw was 87 and the final one was 83.60.

Chopra will wind down his season (unless he decided to participate in the National Games) in which he ticked two more boxes — a World Championship medal and the Diamond League title. His next big target will be the World Championships next year to be held in Budapest.

“Now, I have a hunger to change the colour of this medal to gold in the next Worlds,” Chopra had said.

One has to go back to four years to find a competition in which Chopra didn’t finish in the top 3. Chopra was sixth at the Continental Cup in Ostrava in September 2018.

He has pampered sports enthusiasts and made them heady with pride since then by regularly finishing on the podium and winning medals. Medal droughts in Indian sport are measured in decades, but since Chopra emerged there has been a windfall.

So brilliant has Chopra been that it is difficult to imagine him being average or mediocre in a javelin throw final. It is like he has been pre-programmed for success no matter what the conditions, the level of competition or the odds stacked against him. He has made consistency his middle name, a rarity for Indian athletes.

A look at his medal-winning throws since returning after a long break post the Olympic Games is a testament to Chopra’s fail-safe technique, his elasticity and mental strength.

He has broken the national record not once but twice. 86.69 metres in difficult weather is the least distance he has thrown to win an event this year. He has three throws over 89 metres this year. A couple of weeks ago, he returned after a groin injury and threw a distance of 89.09 metres to win his first Diamond League — the Laussane leg — and guarantee his berth in the prestigious final. In his only other Diamond League in Stockholm, he had improved the national record from 89.30 metres to 89.94 metres.

What has eluded him this season is a 90-metre throw. He won’t fret about it. Being a Diamond League Champion is another peak scaled.

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