Neeraj Chopra, 2022 IAAF World Championships silver medalist. The second Indian to medal at an athletics Worlds. The first Indian man to do it. If there’s a tinge of disappointment in the colour of the medal, it’s merely a mark of the greatness of the man. Because make no mistake, this is one of the greatest moments in Indian sports history.
And it took an all-time great performance to beat him. Anderson Peters defended his gold in quite remarkable fashion – crossing the vaunted 90m mark thrice in six throws.
“Now, I just have a greater hunger to change the colour of this medal to gold in the next Worlds.”
Chopra started slow, uncharacteristically. His method over the past few years has been set in stone: come out and go big from throw one. And it’s a method that works. After all, it’s how he won Olympic gold – not allowing the Tokyo humidity to get to him by going full pelt in his first two throws, the best two throws of anyone on the night.
In Eugene, though, he started with a foul and then a very modest (by his standards) 82.39m. At that stage he was fifth. It didn’t help that the man perceived to be his main rival – Peters – threw 90.21m and 90.46m in his first two attempts. Both better marks than Chopra had ever thrown. Pressure, capital P.
In his third attempt, Chopra hit 86.37m. Not good enough, but a sign that he had finally found his groove. The relief in the smile he gave the camera after the throw was palpable. After the event he would say that at no point did he think that ‘I am the Olympic champion, I need to become world champion’.
It’s a line he (and most elite athletes) maintain – that once his event starts, everything else just fades away, that external pressure really doesn’t matter, that it’s just him and the Valhalla in his hand. It’s part bravado for the outside world, part self-motivating… but that smile was a beautiful, honest moment. The smile of a man who realised that his skill, his bread-and-butter, had not abandoned him at the most crunch of times. “I just really wanted to do well today,” he would say.
That throw gave him belief and in his fourth attempt, he ran up, flung the javelin 88.13m and let out an almighty roar. He knew instantly that he had got that one right. It was good enough for second, and that’s where he stayed. He fouled out his last two throws. Peters closed out the event with a massive 90.54m, the biggest throw of the day.
“It was challenging,” Chopra said afterwards, about being outside the medals in the first three rounds of throws, “but I knew I had at least one big throw in me.”
“I always say that every athlete has his day and today it was Peters’…It’s good for me, good for the sport. I have good competition”
He spoke about how the windy conditions, “blowing in from the front,” had been a challenge. Coach Dr. Klaus Bartonietz talked about how the construction of the stadium meant the wind was always going to be unpredictable. Neither, though, said it by way of an excuse – they were merely describing the situation.
Peters, who had five of the seven best throws in the world before the event started, had looked in peak form throughout 2022 and he maintained it at the biggest stage of the year. Chopra and Anderson go back quiet a bit – ever since the Indian won gold and the Grenadian bronze in the 2016 junior Worlds – and the respect they have for each other is immense. “A 90m throw is not easy. It might have looked easy but Anderson Peters was putting in a lot of effort. I always say that every athlete has his day and today it was Peters’,” he said. “I am happy [for him], he has worked so hard,” he said, before making a remark that reminded everyone of his elite mentality: “It’s good for me, good for the sport. I have good competition,” he said with a smile.
And then another – When it was pointed out that he had now medalled in every major competition, he said “yeah, but this one isn’t gold.”
“Now, I just have a greater hunger to change the colour of this medal to gold in the next Worlds” he said. He also pointed out that he was still missing one prize, the Diamond trophy, won by those competing across Diamond Leagues through the year. ‘I want it,’ he seemed to be saying.
“I learnt a lot today,” he would say a couple of times and it’s evident that he will take great confidence from the ‘loss’. Especially from the fact that he was able to go to plan B after plan A failed miserably, that his clutch-ness came to the fore under extreme pressure. Importantly now, the pain of not qualifying for the final in 2017 and missing 2019 due to injury has been exorcised.
Toward the end there was a small injury concern, a scare with the Commonwealth Games starting later this week. After the fourth throw, he felt something in his thigh – during the cross-step, he said – and had it heavily strapped. “I will know by morning how it feels… if it’s something to worry about.”
For now, though, India should rest easy. They have a World Championship silver medalist amongst them: Neeraj Chopra, Indian sports’ GOAT. And he’s nowhere near done yet.