Mystery over Neeraj Chopra ‘guest’ appearance

Reigning Olympic and world champ is expected to compete on Wednesday
Neeraj Chopra
Neeraj Chopra (File photo)

BHUBANESWAR: Reality hits you hard when you least expect it. Tuesday was one such day. At the playing or the warm-up arena, Neeraj Chopra was discussed in every conversation. Perspective changed after a conversation with an amicable cabbie. The name Neeraj definitely is famous but the craft he practices?

While on the way to the Kalinga Stadium for the third day of the National Federation Senior Athletics Competition, the discussion with the cabbie naturally veered towards athletics. The conversation went something like this. “What sporting event is going on at Kalinga Stadium?,” asked the cabbie. “Athletics,” was the reply. “Ye kaun sa sport hain ji (What sport is this)?,”asked the cabbie. “Running, jumping, throwing...” was the reply.

“Achcha (ah, okay),” said the cabbie. He must have heard about Neeraj Chopra? “Haan suna hai ye naam (definitely, heard that name). International player hai.” There was a pause... then came the confirmation: “Footballer?” Well. “We follow football and hockey here and know cricketers,” said the cabbie. Sometimes, it’s best to leave things as it is.

Minutes later, there was a buzz in the warm-up area. Javelin thrower Kishore Jena, who finished fifth at the Worlds in Budapest last year apart from a fine silver at Asian Games, was walking towards the area. A few photographers were trying to take pictures. Suddenly, someone tried to stop them from entering the warm-up arena. Someone even said that he is a VIP and should be left alone. Mirror does have two faces.

Away from all these, the mystery of Neeraj’s arrival was getting thicker. On Monday, the discussion was that he is coming. On Tuesday, it turned to ‘when is he arriving?’. Until evening, there was some news that he would be reaching the city late from New Delhi. As if it was a national security issue, there was no information on Neeraj except that he would be participating on Wednesday evening.

Neeraj is going to participate in an event in India for the first time since the Tokyo Olympics gold in 2021. The start list was tweaked and qualification for the top eight throwers was waived. So he could come and throw during the competition. So he could arrive late on Tuesday and compete in the evening on Wednesday and leave. He left Doha after the Diamond League on Sunday.

That leaves us with another question. Why is he here? Logically he should be headed to Europe for training and more competitions. For the last three years, he had not been competing in India anyway.

This, however, was cleared during a press conference. Athletic Federation of India president, Adille Sumariwalla, said that it is compulsory for all athletes, including those training abroad, to take part at the senior inter-state nationals at Panchkula in June. “Since he will be participating at the Paris Diamond League, the inter-state is clashing, so we have given him exemption,” he said.

The AFI had said that those throwers who have thrown over 75m can be part of the final on Wednesday. Presumably, this was done to let Neeraj spend as little time in Bhubaneswar as possible. The AFI chief said that they have done this keeping in mind the athletes’ benefit. It is understood that commercial commitment could be one of the reasons for his lack of time. Still there should be clarity on his schedule.

Perhaps, AFI has missed out on a great opportunity to promote the sport. The Olympic and World champion usually doesn’t come to India to compete because of international commitments and it is understandable. Waiving qualification too is fine. But for an athlete of his stature, mere presence is enough to boost the profile of the event. He need not throw but he can at least spend some time and interact with younger athletes and motivate them further.

AFI chief hopeful of winning more medals
The AFI chief said that he is expecting at least 35 athletes including the 4x400m relay teams to qualify for the Paris Olympics. Sumariwalla said that in 2012 there were some 12 athletes and that is expected to swell to 35 this time. He also reiterated that all athletes must compete at the inter-state senior nationals in Panchkula next month. “That will be the last chance for qualification,” he said.

“Twenty athletes have achieved automatic qualification criteria set up by World Athletics. Eleven athletes will qualify through the world ranking system. We are expecting five more athletes to make the cut for the Olympic Games before June 30,” he added. Sumariwalla usually refrains from predicting medals but he hoped India would win more than one medal. “We have good chances of winning medals in javelin, 4x400m relay and long jump if the athletes perform up to their potential on a given day,” he said.

Take the case of the 4x400 relay teams (men and women). Both had to come and participate here. They also have to compete at the Asian Relay championships in Bangkok on May 20. The AFI chief is hopeful that the mixed relay team will qualify through Asian Relays.

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