HANGZHOU: Neeraj Chopra‘s aura at the 19th Asian Games is as unmissable as the technologically ‘smart’ event China has rolled out. Like those lit-up, high-rise buildings all around the city, the Olympic and world champion shines the brightest among the Indian contingent.
On Saturday, when Neeraj walked out of the Athletes Village to the media centre across the road, the top brass of the Athletics Federation of India, including its president Adille Sumariwalla, accompanied the javelin icon — as the Indian media waited with its paraphernalia to pick the brains of one of India’s biggest sports stars.
Asian Games Day 7
It’s the first multi-sport international event where Neeraj will be defending his gold medal, winning it in the last edition at Jakarta 2018. But another Asian Games gold can’t be considered a given for multiple reasons: a groin injury that keeps flaring up and the presence of Pakistan’s Arshad Nadeem, who finished behind Neeraj for a silver medal at Budapest World Championships in August.
Talking about his journey to the top, which began with the Asian Games in 2018, Neeraj put his success, and the occasional slip, into perspective while looking ahead to his competition day in Hangzhou.

You reached Hangzhou only a couple of days back. What’s your first reaction since arriving here?
I went to the stadium yesterday (Friday). It was full, and that delighted me. There were a lot of fans coming to watch athletics.
How have been your preparations coming in, considering the Diamond League final performance, where you finished second with a throw of 83.80m right after becoming world champion?
I realised my dream of winning the World Championships. It was a challenging year because right at the start of the season I had a recurrence of groin strain. I missed 3-4 competitions because of that. I pushed myself for the World Championships, met doctors, worked a lot with my physiotherapist and did rehab in Switzerland. After that, my throws both in qualification and in the final at the World Championships were good. But in short intervals, I played in Zurich and then the Diamond League final in the USA. The performance was not good, but there were some things that I learnt.
For the first time I did not travel with my javelins. I thought I would get it from there because I had to change multiple flights. That can sometimes be a problem (with equipment). The javelins I had there were new, from a different company, were hard and unused. So every thrower was struggling. Yakub (Vadlejch) also did 84 something. So I knew what was not right. This (Asian Games) is my last competition of the year, so I will give my 100%.
Considering that, how have you planned your recovery phase in the off-season?
I will get time before the Olympics (in 2024). Right now the main focus is to keep myself fit; that was the biggest challenge (this season), to stay fit until the Asian Games. But I can’t take a long rest in the off-season because I have to prepare for Paris.
Your rise began with the Asian Games (gold in 2018) and you are here again. How does it feel?
That was the start of my journey, with the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, followed by the Asian Games in Jakarta, and it was a good throw there. I broke the national record with 88.06m. A lot has changed now. Those dreams of playing and winning at the Olympics and then to win at the World Championships. Sitting here (in 2023), I have fulfilled those dreams. It’s the first time that I will be defending a title at a big stage (multi-discipline event). I will put in all my effort to do that.
The weather in Hangzhou has once again turned overcast and it has been raining as well since the track and field events started on September 29. What effect can it have?
I certainly hope the weather stays clear. But I believe we should be ready for challenges. It’s nature. We can’t change that, and the conditions will be the same for everyone. So the mindset is to be prepared for tough conditions also.

Neeraj with Indian cricket team in Hangzhou (IANS Photo)
We heard there has been a huge demand among the Indian contingent to meet Neeraj, get pictures clicked with you, even the cricket teams who always enjoy the kind of popularity that you enjoy now in India…
I too get myself clicked with the athletes (smiles). I know it (cricket) is the most popular sport in India, and now it is also part of the Asian Games; both men and women teams are part of it. Efforts are on to include it in the Olympics as well. The boys were saying it’s a privilege to meet. I met them (new young cricketers) for the first time, and have met the seniors before. They were very energetic.
How do you take the hype that is there around your competition with Pakistan’s Arshad Nadeem, who won a silver medal at the World Championships this year?
Sport is global. You don’t compete with just one country. Even at the World Championships there was this same question, that ‘Pakistan’s Arshad Nadeem is competing with you here, what are my thoughts on that’. I had said then that I don’t have a one to one competition. There are athletes from other countries as well, be it Pakistan or any other country. When we are on the field, we push each other. Off the field, we are friendly. We (athletes from all countries) eat together at the Athletes Village. That’s the message of the Games. Only an athlete or someone who understands sport will be able to understand that.
You talked about carrying a groin injury. How have you handled it through the season?
There are unnatural movements in javelin. So there always is some sort of strain. But yes, there is a niggle in the groin. It happened last year as well. I was feeling better, but it happened again. So I am taking care of it with the Paris Olympics in mind and working on it. My endeavour this season was to stay fit and divert myself and focus on the competition.
I was struggling a little at the World Championships as well and was trying to keep my focus on my throw and not on the niggle because the strength of my throw is in my speed on the runway. That was the problem. I wasn’t able to throw with full run-up in training because of this. But I am still happy with my season. It was good.
In sports things will not always pan out the way you want. I thought of being 100% fit before getting on the field this season. It didn’t happen. The main thing is to keep yourself fit for big competitions. That’s my priority. Diamond League we get every year, so I skipped some of those, even the continental meets of gold level. I also read somewhere after my Diamond League performances that ‘Neeraj should not play the Asian Games and focus on Paris’. But I don’t believe in running away from a situation.
You are now looked up to as the global sports icon that every young Indian athlete wants to become. What’s your message to them?
I will go back to 2018, when I played the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games for the first time. You shouldn’t take pressure at the start of your career. I was enjoying the Games in 2018 because to be at the Games was a dream. So I feel that passion should be there. Like yesterday (September 29) we won a medal in women’s shot-put (Kiran Baliyan). I said just one thing to her, just give your 100% without thinking about what will happen. It’s like you say you have nothing to lose. Winning is important, but a defeat also teaches you a lot of things. So just learn and believe in your abilities.
Does the repeated question of hitting the 90-metre mark frustrate you?
Number is always (on the mind) in every competition. But it also depends on the day. Like in Doha there was a lot of headwind, running was difficult. In contrast, at the World Championships it was an easy, relaxed run resulting in a good throw. Maybe God has some special plans (smiles). But I focus more on winning. A 90m throw is also important, but I think there are many who can throw 90m. It’s about being that competition and beating them.
Watch One has to be consistent not only in throws but in training too: Neeraj Chopra

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