For javelin throwers participating at the Paavo Nurmi Games in Turku, Finland, there’s always an added incentive. Breaking the Finnish national record at the spiritual home of javelin throw entitles one to a major bonus. Four years ago, throwers who went past 93.09 metres were promised the title deed to an island. This wasn’t a prank.
This year’s incentive will appeal to Olympic gold medallist Neeraj Chopra. The owner of a second-hand Ford Mustang – he had rewarded himself with the American muscle car for making history in Tokyo – has been alerted about the eco-friendly electric option.
A day before Chopra makes his much-anticipated return after the Olympics, organisers smartly tweeted: “Mr. First-Ever Indian Olympic Champion is in the house! Neeraj Chopra (@Neeraj_chopra1), it’s a pleasure to have you in #Turku! Javelin will be EPIC!! Also, how would a Ford Mustang Match-E sound like? Over 93.09m aaand (sic) have a nice ride.”
A picture of a relaxed-looking Chopra, with a baseball cap worn backwards and standing in front of a large poster with a black and white cut-out of the legendary distance runner, popularly known as flying Finn and owner of nine Olympic gold medals, was part of the social media post. Ten months after the Tokyo high, Chopra will compete for the first time on Tuesday night in Turku. Temperatures are a cool 18 degree Celsius and a light drizzle is predicted soon after the javelin competition. Turku will feel welcoming till the throwers reach the call room.
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On the runway awaits a hotly-contested event and Chopra will experience what it means to be the man everyone wants to beat. The Finnish record or the car won’t be on his mind. Chopra said he hasn’t felt the pressure of being Olympic champion yet during a recent interaction from his training base in Antalya, Turkey. He was cool as a cucumber in Tokyo and beat a world-class field. But can he do it again at the World Championships in Oregon in a little over a month from now? Was there enough time for him to regain strength, fitness and elasticity since putting on weight during two months of celebrations back home?
Turku is a good place to start gauging form and fitness. Chopra will be rubbing shoulders with some of the greats who exited Tokyo empty-handed but have an eye on World Championship glory. Grenada’s Anderson Peters, the current world champion, didn’t qualify for the final in Tokyo. A 93.27m throw last month at the Diamond League in Doha, a personal best, makes him a favourite. But has he peaked too early? Peters is at Turku.
The silver medallist at Tokyo, Czech Jakub Vadlejch has gone 90-plus, a personal best. Germany’s Julian Weber, the fourth place-finisher at the Summer Games, has improved by leaps and bounds with 89.54m. Vadlejch, Weber and Peters add depth to the Continental Tour Gold Series event. Chopra’s German friend Johannes Vetter, sporting a full- grown beard now, has withdrawn from Turku but it won’t be long before he lines up alongside Chopra this season.
Vetter knows the pitfalls of going all out too early. He was the odds-on-favourite to win gold at the Olympics after a series of 90m throws earlier in the season. In the Tokyo final though, he didn’t progress after the first three throws. This season, he is perhaps wiser and conserving his best for the World Championships, starting modestly at 85.64 metres.
Going the distance
Chopra isn’t obsessed with the 90m mark, after all his famous gold was won at 87.58 metres. Distances can fluctuate in the javelin throw, a technique-driven event, more so at major competitions as seen in Tokyo or at the previous Worlds in Doha where Peters won gold with 86.89m. Yet, Chopra knows that the time has come to have a 90m mark against his name. If the best in the world find their collective form at the World Championships, he will have to respond.
“I have a target of 90 metres but not in the first competition; sometime this year. My coach (Klaus Bartonietz) is thinking that when the season opens, I should start with a throw of about 86-87-88. With that, we will also know my fitness level so far and what we should focus on in training (going ahead). I won’t go into any competition with the pressure of distance,” Chopra said during a recent interaction.
He isn’t perturbed by the progress made by Peters and Vadlejch. He is not chasing records yet is determined to join the elite 90m club.
“I want to do my best. Overall, the competition in the world is improving. But it all depends on the day. How the throwers manage with the kind of weather and conditions is important because it has an effect. Vetter has thrown 97 metres (97.76 metres) but it is not that I want to break his record. Jakub also did well, they also have a target. My aim is also to achieve it (90 metres) at one of the competitions. I will not leave any stone unturned.”
Going from the mid-80s to the 90s is not like flicking a switch. Javelin throwers work on strength, speed (on the runway), flexibility and finer nuances of technique – of which a strong and efficient block of the leading leg is vital. Releasing a javelin five degrees above or below the ideal level (34 to 36 degrees is recommended) can lead to injury and shorter distances. A perfect fusion is a must even for an 85-metre throw, Chopra said.
“Everything needs to click. Fitness is key. Your throwing distance maybe good but in weightlifting room if you are not feeling good, or jumping (drills) is not happening well or you are not sprinting well, you don’t feel great. Most important is that with speed on the runway, you have to maintain technique and have control of your body. If we want to go over 85 metres, everything will have to be perfect.”
Chopra had to start from the basics again when he travelled to Chula Vista in USA in November after the countrywide celebrations got over post the Olympics. Visibly heavier by then, he started off by shedding weight.
“I lost around 12 to 14 kilograms,” Chopra said. But achieving lower figures on the weighing scale is easy for a top athlete. The challenge is this: “I can lose 10 kilos in 10 days if I run and follow a diet. But the challenge is how to achieve athlete-level fitness after losing weight.”
Three meets in 17 days
Staying injury-free will be the immediate area of focus for Chopra. An elbow surgery three years ago robbed him of precious time. Four days after the competition in Turku, Chopra will participate at the Kuortane Games on June 18, followed by the Diamond League in Stockholm on June 30. Three weeks after throwing in Stockholm is the qualifying round of the World Championships.
“I have three competitions in two weeks. I need to remain fit and stay away from injuries and that’s the main thing. But in competitions, you have to go all out. Only then can I do well the entire season.”
Since Chopra’s historic win, the sport in the country has started looking up. He talks about interest from Thomas Röhler, the 2016 Olympic champion (missed Tokyo because of injury) and Vetter about the popularity of javelin in India and the emergence of a group of young 80m-plus throwers. The trio had discussions at a common training base in Turkey. Chopra also launched a YouTube channel recently where his training videos will be posted. 30.7K subscribers, many of them eager javelin throwers, wait for a new post by the golden boy of Indian athletics with a major presence on social media.
The channel’s launch video’s background sound contains the unmistakable growl of a Mustang engine with short clips of the speeding car. Chopra’s career has been in an acceleration phase. Over the next month and a half, he’ll hope to glide over the speed-breakers, if any.