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Neeraj Chopra at Doha Diamond League: 90m in focus again but Olympic champ banks on his main weapon – consistency

The Olympic champion from India has never denied that 90m is a magical number in men’s javelin throw that he hopes to cross one day. In 2022, he came within 6cm of it.

It’s not just fans and followers of athletics in India. The anticipation for Neeraj Chopra to cross the 90m mark is entering international territory. In the pre-event press conference on Thursday, before the Diamond League meet in Doha, fellow Olympic and World Champion Miltiadis Tentoglou made a passing remark when asked if he has a dream number that he’d like to register in long jump one day: “Before I answer that, first of all, I will be very happy if Neeraj throws 90m tomorrow, truly happy.” Neeraj smiled.

The Olympic champion from India has never denied that 90m is a magical number in men’s javelin throw that he hopes to cross one day. In 2022, he came within 6cm of it. Imagine. Six centimeters. That discussion is once again front and center as he gets ready for the title defence in Paris by opening his season with the Doha Diamond League. In an ideal world, 90m shouldn’t matter as long as he keeps winning competitions with the best throw on the day. But it has now been built up to such mythical proportions that it’s easy to imagine that he would want to get it out of the way quickly.

“People have been asking me this question since 2018 when I threw 88.06 at the Asian Games,” Neeraj said on Thursday in Doha. “A lot of things happened after that, my elbow injury, the surgery and now I have been stuck between 88 and 90m.

“But I really want to break the barrier this year. Even last year, I had said that Doha is famous for 90m. But, we were not lucky due to too much headwind. Maybe tomorrow we’ll have a good day. Obviously, it is the Olympics year and India is a big country and everyone expects gold always. My focus is to just stay healthy and concentrate on my technique. And yes, if I stay healthy everything will be good.”

Neeraj has often insisted that consistency is one of his strong points. “Maybe it is my greatest weapon. I will throw over 90, but consistency is more important for me,” he reiterated. Nothing sums up that consistency more than this stat: The 87.58m he threw in Tokyo for the historic gold doesn’t even feature in his top 10 throws anymore. Only twice in 2023 (shortly after his World Championships gold) and once in 2022 (in horrid conditions) he dipped below that. Since Tokyo alone, Neeraj has crossed 88m 10 times and three of those have been 89m+.

Neeraj Chopra will kickstart his road to the Paris Olympics at the Doha Diamond League Meeting on Friday. (Reuters)

It is that consistency he will be looking for in Doha as he returns to action after more than 7 months since his hard-fought gold medal at the Hangzhou Asian Games. At the press conference Neeraj joked that while his popularity has certainly risen since Tokyo, he is not at the same level as the cricketers like Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni. Someone like Kohli is in action nearly round the year and has to take breaks to manage his workload but that is not the case with track and field events. Neeraj has had a lengthy offseason and competes around 7-8 events in a year at best.

During winter sessions in Potchefstroom, South Africa Neeraj restarted working with Spencer Mackay, Head of Strength & Conditioning at Inspire Institute of Sport, in a bid to be in top shape. Then he shifted base to Turkey as he stepped up to throwing sessions. Through it all, he has to stick to carefully planned processes, all while being away from the spotlight.

“I have to tell this, sometimes people might think it is a fun life where I am spending all this time outside India but it is actually not. It’s mostly a boring life. You train in the morning, eat, and then rest. Then have your evening training session, have dinner, and then go to sleep. This is our daily routine. For example, we were in South Africa for 2-3 months. At one point we had not left the centre for four weeks. There is a line you can draw between the hostel, the dining hall and training area… that is the map we live in most times,” Neeraj said in a press interaction a few weeks back.

India’s Kishore Jena reacts during the men’s javelin throw final at Worlds 2023 in Budapest. (REUTERS)

As he gets closer to competition time, the winning itch will return. In Doha, the world will get a look at where Neeraj stands at the start of an Olympic year but he too will know what some of his main competitors have been up to. And to add to the occasion, he will have Kishore Kumar Jena too with him. Seeing more Indians compete at Diamond League meets has long been on Neeraj’s wishlist and Jena, who gave the champion athlete a good old scare in Hangzhou, will be looking to make his mark too. Neeraj even said lightheartedly that the world has been asking him about the 90m mark, maybe Jena will get to that before him in Doha.

But true to his word, Neeraj’s eyes will be trained on the runway, just trying to do what he has done best in his career: trust his training, step up, and deliver his best. The 90m will eventually be just happenstance, a byproduct of the work he puts in during all the months of training, not the main target.

What’s the field at Doha DL?

Max Dehning, the 19-year-old German teenager who caused a stir earlier this year by throwing 90.20m, is not part of the field in Doha but has certainly caught Neeraj Chopra’s attention too. They are set to meet later at Paavo Nurmi Games. There will be no German presence in Doha, and Neeraj’s closest contender will be Jakub Vadlejch once again. The Czech athlete has travelled along with Neeraj to a majority of events, and he has started off the season in good form with a 87.00m throw in South Africa. From an Indian point of view, Kishore Kumar Jena’s presence adds more interest to the Doha DL meet. The last time he competed, he briefly overtook Neeraj at the Hangzhou Asian Games final, and got up to 87.54m. The other names to look forward to would be Anderson Peters and Julius Yego, who have both crossed 90m in their careers. Peters, two-time World Champion, struggled for most of 2023 after his accident late in 2022. Yego, the 2016 Olympic silver medallist, is not the force he once was either. Finland’s Oliver Helander, with a personal best of 89.83m, is another one to keep an eye on.

Neeraj Chopra and Kishore Kumar Jena’s event is scheduled to start at 10.12 pm IST on Friday, and will be live on JioCinema and Sports18. Event broadcast will begin at 9.30 pm IST

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