Selfies, loud chants and gold: Neeraj Chopra marks his competitive return on Indian soil with Federation Cup win

Neeraj Chopra in Federation Cup
Neeraj Chopra in Federation Cup (PC: Subhayan Chakraborty)

Subhayan Chakraborty from Bhubaneswar

Neeraj Chopra, the reigning Olympic champion in javelin throw, clinched the gold medal in what was his return to competition on Indian soil, after a gap of three years, at the Federation Cup held in Bhubaneswar’s Kalinga Stadium on Wednesday.

India’s ‘golden boy’ wasn’t at his fluent self as he maintained a controlled approach, conserving energy while delivering consistently strong throws. There were other factors as well which led to Chopra not going full throttle at the event with little gap between the Doha Diamond League, and mounting heat and humidity in Bhubaneswar.

Chopra’s best throw of 82.27 meters outshined DP Manu’s effort of 82.06 metres, securing him a gold medal on his return to Indian soil.

During the competition, Chopra was observed engaging in animated discussions with his coach Klaus Bartonietz, and he paced himself cleverly given his packed schedule leading up to the Paris Olympics.

Though the atmosphere was top, some may feel the athletes failed to come up with their best throws and ultimately, it was a lacklustre show.

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“Let’s not talk about the throws. They were not up to the mark. But I am just happy to compete in India after such a long time, and it was great to see that so many people came to support me,” said Chopra in the press conference. “All of you know about the weather conditions. I had planned at the start that I would put in effort according to how I was feeling. I am just back from Doha. That is why I only made four throws, as I am leaving for Ostrava (for the Golden Spike) soon, in about 10-12 days.”

The event also spotlighted other athletes’ quests for Olympic qualification, with DP Manu aiming for the elusive 85.50-meter mark. Despite falling short, Manu was clearly the second best after Chopra.

“It was great to share the podium with Neeraj. It was heartening to see fans coming in numbers to support the athletes. Though I thought, I would be able to touch 87m today, it just didn’t happen. I have understood the importance of technique. I was spraying it around today. I’ll work on it further,” Manu told RevSportz in an interview after the event. “Watching Neeraj closely again, you understand the importance of preparing well with clear mindset and plan.”

However, local boy Kishore Kumar Jena’s performance raised concerns, as the athlete who shone at the 2023 World Championships and Asian Games has struggled to surpass the 80-meter mark during competitive throws this season including the Doha Diamond League. At the Federation Cup, Jena finished fifth with a best effort of 75.49m, way behind the 78.39m mark as Maharashtra’s Uttam Patil set to take the bronze medal.

“It was a great experience. When you compete in an event with top athletes like Neeraj, Jena, Manu and others, you tend to learn quicker and improve. Sharing the podium with Neeraj was the takeaway for me. I’ll be back better next year,” Patil told RevSportz. “In India, you hardly get to see fans come in numbers and cheer loudly for athletes. Today, it was different. It only motivates you to do better.”

Neeraj Chopra in action
Neeraj Chopra in action (PC: Subhayan Chakraborty)

Chopra’s participation turned the Federation Cup into a high-profile affair, drawing crowds eager to witness the Olympic champion in action. Spectators, including school children and sports lovers, filled the Kalinga Stadium, chanting Neeraj Chopra’s name and capturing the moments with their cameras.

Beyond his athletics ahievements, Chopra’s homecoming showcased his dual identity as a sporting superstar and approachable figure. His interactions with fans, including impromptu selfies and warm exchanges with fellow athletes, highlighted his down-to-earth nature amidst the limelight. As soon as the medal ceremony was over, Chopra was quick to thank the fans in the stands who stayed back to cheer for the medalists. “Thank you for coming and supporting Indian athletics and athletes.”

Despite not achieving a 90m throw, Chopra highlighted the value of Olympic gold over distance records, maintaining a steadfast focus on securing medals at international competitions.

“If you compare the two, I think the Olympic gold has greater importance than a particular distance. Records can be broken when it comes to distance, but no one can take your medals away,” Chopra said. “I am trying for 90m and I am confident that when the place and conditions are right, I will achieve that. But for now, I am focusing on getting the Olympic medal.”

Overall, it was a successful Federation Cup with some closely-contested events though the showstopping event, javelin throw, could have produced better results. However, the takeaway would be Chopra’s return to Indian soil, him winning the yellow metal, heightened excitement among fans and new-found desire to head to stadiums to watch Indian athletes compete.

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