Kolkata: Is Neeraj Chopra the greatest Indian athlete ever? The endorsement has come from none less than Anju Bobby George, the first-ever Indian to win a medal at the World Athletics, and there is no viable logic of refuting it at the moment.
An athletics gold in the Olympics, followed by the feat of being the first man from the country to win a medal at the Worlds - the ever-smiling Army officer with broad shoulders is certainly treading at a zone in track and field where angels have feared to tread. Just these two medals in Tokyo and Eugene by themselves qualify him to be the most successful Indian athlete and at 24 years of age and current form, there is a realistic promise of him delivering more at the highest stage of the sport.
The question that perhaps begs to be asked is: would he rate as a better allround athlete than a Milkha Singh or P.T.Usha, two of the most respected names before him who had the curse of a fourth place finish in the Olympics haunting them for the rest of their lives. There is no clear answer to this for a number of reasons.
Well, athletics means track and field events in totality - and each demand a different kind of skillsets to shine at the highest level. When questioned who was the greatest sprinter ever, it could be a toss-up between Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt but if the question is narrowed down to a debate of the best athlete, then the iconic athlete from the US would enjoy an edge over the Jamaican sprint kind because of his exploits in the long jump arena along with the sprints.
This is where Chopra’s achievement has to be taken in the right perspective. Javelin is, to quote George, one of the ‘‘toughest events’’ in the world - where we have been left starry-eyed to watch the exploits of the erstwhile Eastern Bloc countries and the Europeans - along with shotput and discus throw over the ages. It takes a rare combination of brute strength, technique, rhythm - though may not be the sprinting skills in equal measure. A tough proposition for an Indian - and no words of praise is enough for Neeraj for trying to push the boundaries in such a sport.
The intervening year between Tokyo and Eugene saw a 360 degrees turn in the journey of Chopra. The instant stardom, windfall of cash, endorsements etc raised the spectre of the Haryanvi, still a simpleton at heart, losing focus but he decided to shut himself off from the noise since he left for Chula Vista in the US to resume training in May. Once he entered the competition, it was apparent that Chopra was nearing his peak as he broke his own national record twice in July and came agonisingly close to reaching that 90 metres mark with a throw of 89.94 metres in the Stockholm Golden League.
Eugene didn’t see the best of him alright, but the way he clawed back after a foul throw showed that Chopra has acquired the resolve and experience not to choke at the highest stage as he still managed a throw of 88.13m for a podium finish.
What next for him? He will be heading directly to Birmingham for the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games is now confirmed to be held next year - but those are targets which he has fulfilled. His goals are obviously higher - the next Worlds in Hungary is coming up next year while the 2024 Paris Olympics, which has a shorter cycle now, is also not that far.
Which other Indian athlete has taught a country of billion people to dream big ahead of such events in the past? No one - and this is what makes Neeraj Chopra special for Indian sport!