Neeraj Chopra didn't get to compete at the second leg of the Indian Grand Prix at Patiala's National Institute of Sport on February 25 but that didn't mean he was any less of an attraction. While the javelin throw event was won by Rohit Yadav, the camera crew documenting the event for the Athletics Federation of India's YouTube channel had Chopra join in for the post-competition interview. Eventually it was the 21-year-old national record holder, whom most of the questions ended up being directed at. This was understandable as Chopra is undoubtedly the biggest star in Indian athletics right now. As a junior world champion, junior world record holder, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games champion, he's also someone who has genuine world class ability.
Chopra appeared mildly bemused at being interviewed following an event he didn't compete in last week, but he's going to be the main attraction, and the javelin throw competition the highlight of the third leg of the Indian Grand Prix that will be held on Friday afternoon.
There isn't any real pressure on Chopra, he's already qualified for the Olympics, but the IGP is still significant. Chopra will be throwing for the first time since he booked his ticket to the Tokyo Games with a throw of 87.86m in South Africa in January last year.
That competition in turn was his first following a lengthy absence owing to an elbow injury that required surgery and then a long period of rehabilitation. It was a break that halted a lot of momentum. Following his Olympic qualification Chopra had wanted to build up some of that momentum by getting a few competitions under his belt - a prospect that vanished owing to the coronavirus pandemic.
"My performance was very good in 2018. I had won the Commonwealth and Asian Games. I was working with a target in my mind. Of course, in 2019 I had that injury that took me back. I made a comeback in 2020 with a good throw in South Africa. I feel I had prepared really well in 2020 as well but because of the coronavirus, we couldn't have any competition. But I feel we have prepared well this year as well," he told the interviewers last week.
Chopra has said he's looking forward to competing at this IGP as well as the Federation Cup at the end of the month before heading abroad for further high level competitions. He's also said one of his resolutions for the new year was to break his national record of 88.06m recorded at the 2018 Asian Games and also cross the 90m mark. But he won't have to depend on international competitions in order to be pushed towards those milestones. Hot on his heels is Shivpal Yadav, who also qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in South Africa. With a personal best of 86.23m Yadav is the second best thrower in Indian history apart from Neeraj and he's promised to give a strong account of himself in Patiala.
While Yadav is bound to provide a tough challenge to Chopra, the priority for both throwers will remain the Olympics less than five months away. "Everyone's dream is the Olympics. The main focus for me (at the IGP) is to work on whatever shortcomings I had the year before. Whether there are weaknesses in technique or physical strength, I'll work on that and do even better this year as well," Chopra said.
Chopra and Yadav aren't the only elite athletes who will be competing in Patiala. Long jump national record holder M Sreeshankar cleared 8m with an effort of 8.05m at the IGP 2 last week and he'll be itching to get closer to the Olympic qualifying standard of 8.22m. Also one to keep an eye on will be Avinash Sable, the national record holder in the 3000m steeplechase, who will competing in his first competition in that event since qualifying for the Olympics at the 2019 World Championships. Despite the lengthy break in that event, Sable hasn't been entirely out of action, having shattered the Indian half marathon record by more than three minutes at the Delhi half marathon in October last year.