Most of Neeraj Chopra’s Instagram feed contains posts that are typical of high-profile athletes. There are pictures and videos of him training, travelling abroad for tournaments, making big throws, winning. And in the weeks leading up to the Olympics, there are marketing campaigns too – for consumer goods, nutritional supplements, engine oils and shaving products. That makes perfect sense – Neeraj (22) is an advertiser’s dream: tall, powerfully built, blessed with movie star good looks.
There’s one post, though, that shows just why he’s also a rarity in Indian sport – a world-class competitor in athletics. Titled “medicine ball throw”, the post has Chopra standing tall with his arms raised above his head, holding a ball that weighs about 4 kg. Then, with the ball still in his hands, he starts arcing back until he’s almost in an inverted U shape. When the ball is a few inches off the ground, when he looks as if he’s likely to snap in two – “you’re going to fracture your L4 L5”, as one comment put it — he uncoils explosively, flinging the ball out of the camera angle. In one comment, Chopra says his record for that throw is 30m. (More on that throw later.)
When he walks onto the field in Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium on August 4 for the qualifying round in javelin, Chopra will know he has the chance to become the first Indian ever to win a medal in a track and field event at the Olympics. This year just three athletes have made bigger throws than he has, and only one of them – the gold medal favourite Johannes Vetter — has made more throws over 85m than the Indian.
Chopra is already the best Indian athlete of this generation by a distance – with gold medals at the Asian and Commonwealth Games. He’s good, really good. And in a couple of weeks’ time he could be great.
Chopra grew up in a farming family in Khandra village of Haryana’s Panipat district, which didn’t have a playground and certainly no javelins. He played cricket like everyone else although, perhaps in what was a sign of things to come, Chopra was often teased since he could never turn his arm over and could only bowl bhatta (chuck).
Indeed, for someone now termed a natural, Chopra had a fortuitous entry to the sport. In 2011, he was bussed 16 km away to the Sports Authority of India’s Panipat centre by his uncle, who felt that Chopra – then 13 and 5’4 – was overweight at 77kg. “You know how it is in India,” Neeraj once said. “It’s just chance that I became a javelin thrower. If Panipat had runners I would have become a runner.”
Instead, Panipat had four javelin throwers, and Chopra learned his basics from them. And within a few months had improved enough to win a bronze medal at the district championships.
But if he had the natural ability, Chopra also backed himself to make the most of it. He convinced his parents to let him move to Panipat and then, at 14, decided to move to the SAI Sports Hostel in Panchkula’s Tau Devi Lal stadium.
While he has a world class biomechanical expert to work with him now, back then Chopra was largely self-taught, since there simply weren’t many javelin coaches around – a fallout of India’s traditional lack of success in that field. He’d take tips from his seniors but he’d also watch YouTube videos of the greats. Indeed, Chopra would model much of his technique from World record holder Jan Zelezny, including his trademark post-throw “fall” – while most throwers stay stable at the end of their throw, Chopra, like Zelezny, flings himself off his feet at the moment of launch, landing on his palms perilously close to the finish line.
It is much to Chopra’s natural talent that he progressed as far as he did almost entirely self-taught in his early years – he got his first formal coach in 2015.
In 2016, the Australian coach Gerry Calvert, considered one of the authorities on the javelin throw, took charge of Chopra. He had not been particularly enthused initially about taking up the job as coach of India’s then anaemic javelin program — at that point the country had only ever qualified a single Olympian in the discipline. However, he changed his mind after watching a video of Chopra competing at the South Asian Games. Chopra, then 19, threw 82.66m – not a national record but enough to indicate to Calvert that he was special – a “once-in-a-generation thrower”.
Within a few months Chopra would win gold at the World Juniors – the first Indian athlete to do so. He’d often remark that had he qualified for the 2016 Olympics and made his World Junior winning throw of 86.48m at Rio, he’d have won a bronze.
Calvert would have known what a ‘once in a generation talent’ was. Back in 1997 in Townsville, Calvert coached Australian fast bowler Mitchell Johnson – he was then a 16-year-old schoolboy looking to learn how to throw the javelin. “He was just exciting to watch. He had this smoothness. He was lean and athletic and had an air of confidence that set him apart. I got the same feeling when I met Neeraj,” Calvert said in 2016.
Back to that Instagram post. While he might appear to have pulled a move Neo from the Matrix would be proud of, Chopra’s current coach Klaus Bartonietz says there are real-world applications to this movement. Bartonietz is one of the world’s foremost biomechanical experts in the javelin throw and his belief is that flexibility, more than sheer strength, plays a major role in the event.
In a documentary on Belgian TV, Bartonietz explains with a simple example. “Take your index finger and flick it as hard as possible. Now instead of using the power in that finger, try pulling it back with your other hand. The finger is now storing a lot more energy that can be released very quickly. The javelin thrower must develop tremendous suppleness and power in the elastic components of the body-muscles, ligaments and fascia. It’s the ability to build tension here and then release it that gives flight to the spear. He has to make his body a bow with the javelin the arrow,” he says.
Some amount of this ability to build tension in your own body can be trained. But for someone like Chopra, much of this ability is instinctive.
That’s what Calvert believed. He first articulated what Bartonietz would say later about the best throws being the result of building the maximum amount of tension possible. “The javelin throw is all about getting the longest movement of the throwing arm in the shortest amount of time. Neeraj has an instinctive feel for the long movement,” Calvert had said.
Most throwers in an attempt to throw the javelin as quickly as possible, don’t draw their throwing arm as far as they could. The longer they delay releasing their arm, the more distance they can get,” says Calvert. “Arm delay is something you keep trying to drill into an athletes head. Today, perhaps just the best five throwers have that quality. Some of them take years to get that quality. Neeraj already has that ability.”
When Calvert left in 2017, Chopra showed no dip in performance under new coach Uwe Hohn, winning gold at the Commonwealth and Asian Games.
But the immense strains he’d put on his body eventually told. Calvert had warned of this too. The fact that Chopra had gone all his years entirely self-taught without an injury was a miracle, he had said back in 2016. It would be three years later that the string on the bow that is Chopra’s body – the elbow of Chopra’s throwing arm — finally snapped, requiring him to undergo surgery.
2019 was a year that stands out for Chopra if only because of his lack of achievement. He missed out on competing at the 2019 World Championships — a tournament won by Anderson Peters, who had placed third, behind Chopra, at the 2016 World juniors. In fact with the Olympics then just a year away and his competitors all hitting the qualifying marks, Chopra had spent the season in rehab. Through it all though, he had stayed patient.
It was as Calvert had said – Chopra was giving himself as much time as possible under stress, waiting until the absolute last moment when he could uncoil himself. When he got the opportunity, Chopra would make it count, qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics in his first competition of his comeback in January 2020 just a few months before the end of the qualification period.
Of course all that effort seemed to be in vain when the Olympics themselves were postponed. But the wait once again appears to have worked for Chopra. The extra year gave him even more time to complete his rehabilitation and strengthen his body. He’s changed javelins, so that he will be more competitive in windy conditions and he’s also corrected his launch angle so that he doesn’t throw his spear as high and so far to the left as he once used to.
Chopra still says the injury and the subsequent COVID-19 pandemic took away two years of his career, but several of the athletes who were expected to be major medal contenders – defending champion Thomas Rohler, world silver medallist Magnus Kirt, and Andreas Hoffman – who had the second best throw of 2020 — have picked up injuries and withdrawn from the Games.
Where the strain of a delayed Olympics has ended up breaking many of his competitors, Chopra meanwhile has soaked in the tension and stress built up over five years in order to get his first shot at the Olympics. He’s coiled and ready. On the fourth of August he’ll finally be able to explode.