Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > News> Big Story > World Athletics Championships: Will Neeraj Chopra lead India to glory?

World Athletics Championships: Will Neeraj Chopra lead India to glory?

A large and confident contingent of Indian athletes head to the World Athletics Championships in Budapest with the sole aim of winning everything

Neeraj Chopra is aiming to win gold in javelin at the World Athletics Championships.
Neeraj Chopra is aiming to win gold in javelin at the World Athletics Championships. (AFP)

On 28 July, two days before the qualification period for the 2023 World Athletics Championships was about to end, India’s Kishore Jena hurled the javelin to a distance of 84.38m. Jena’s bolt from the blue—he had not crossed 80m before this year—was a personal best and won him gold at the 101st Sri Lankan Championships. More importantly, it helped him climb from the bottom of the ‘Road to Budapest’ rankings and secure a place at the athletics mega event for the very first time.

Till the end of 2022, the farthest the 27-year-old had thrown a javelin was 78.05 metres. His staggering progress this season is the latest in India’s growing list of success stories in track and field. The country will field its largest contingent, 28 athletes, at the World Athletics Championships, which begin in Budapest on Saturday, 19 August.

Also Read How India hit bullseye at the World Archery Championships

A winning mentality

Before this, generations of Indian athletes were brought up on the heartbreak and romance of near-misses on the biggest stage: Milkha Singh finishing fourth in the 400m race at the 1960 Rome Olympics, or P.T. Usha missing out on a medal by 1/100th of a second in 400m hurdles at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, or Anju Bobby George finishing fifth in long jump at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

But Neeraj Chopra’s gold at the Tokyo Games seems to have flipped on a mentality switch. “It has caused a paradigm shift in the mindset of every Indian athlete,” Indian long jumper Murali Sreeshankar said in a media interview recently. “This is a person, who is our very good friend, who won an Olympic gold medal. We started feeling if we do things properly, we too have the potential to achieve what he has. Athletics is not a sport which is played by eight countries nor is it an indigenous sport. It’s a global phenomenon. If you compare the magnitude of what Neeraj Bhaiyya has achieved in the Olympic Games, it’s equivalent to India winning two consecutive Fifa World Cups.”

Also Read Neeraj Chopra's relentless quest for perfection

Less than a year after Chopra’s gold in Tokyo, India had its best outing at the 2022 World Championships. Seven Indian athletes qualified for finals in their respective events, and Chopra ended India’s 19-year drought for a medal at the premier competition. He clinched a silver with a throw of 88.13m to become only the second Indian to finish on the podium after Anju Bobby George in 2003.

While India is far from a dominant force in athletics, the country is taking rapid strides in the sport. With Chopra spearheading the revolution, it is not surprising that the biggest gains have been in javelin. In 2023, five Indians—Chopra, Jena, D.P. Manu, Rohit Yadav and Shivpal Singh—have breached the 80m mark in men’s javelin, the most by any country.

In Budapest, Chopra will once again be a favourite for the title. Despite an injury-ridden season, the 25-year-old has finished first in the two competitions he has participated in: the Doha Diamond League and Lausanne Diamond League. But since his triumph in the Swiss city in July, Chopra has focussed on regaining fitness and form for the World Championship to improve on the silver.

“I have a World Championship medal but not a gold yet,” Chopra had said in July. “I want to be absolutely fit physically and mentally at the time, so I can push myself. Once I go there, I don’t want to be thinking about whether I can give my hundred percent.”

Also Read How gymnast Dipa Karmakar is scripting her comeback

A host of hopefuls

Apart from javelin, Indian athletes have also gone up a level in jumping events. Two Indians currently feature in the top-3 distances this season in long jump. Jeswin Aldrin created a national record at the Indian Open Jumps Competition in March, as he leaped a distance of 8.42m. In June, at the Indian Championships in Bhubaneshwar’s searing heat, Sreeshankar jumped 8.41m. Having made the final at the 2022 world event as well, he may be better prepared to handle the occasion this time around.

India had created a sensation in triple jump at the 2022 Commonwealth Games as Eldhose Paul took the gold and Abdulla Aboobacker the silver. Praveen Chitravel could have completed a podium sweep, but fell just short of the bronze. Chitravel, however, has improved the most, and sprung to a personal best and national record of 17.37m, which is ranked No. 8 on the 2023 leaderboard. Given the competition at the World Championships, chances of a CWG repeat are slim, but the Indian jumpers will hope to improve on their performances from last year. Paul was the only one who qualified for the final and finished ninth in the 12-man field.

Also Read How India's Olympics fencing star Bhavani Devi continues to chase perfection

Avinash Sable in action.
Avinash Sable in action. (Reuters)

The country’s brightest medal hope in track events is 3000m steeplechaser Avinash Sable. The Army man, who has rewritten the national record nine times, became the first non-Kenyan athlete to finish on the podium at the Commonwealth Games since 1994 when he won a silver in Birmimgham in 2022. For the most part of a crucial 2023 season, Sable has trained abroad at higher altitudes. To get in top shape for the World Championships, the 28-year-old shifted base to St. Moritz (elevation 1822m), in Switzerland earlier this month.

The Indian squad.
The Indian squad.

A new generation

In the women’s field, all eyes will be on Shaili Singh (long jump) and Jyothi Yarraji (100m hurdles). While they are still works in progress and far from medal prospects just yet, Singh and Yarraji have already shown glimpses of brilliance on the world stage.

Singh has been working with Anju Bobby George and her husband, and former coach, Robert Bobby George, since 2017, when she was just 14. A silver medallist at the 2021 World Athletics Under-20 Championships, Singh made her senior international debut earlier this year. In April, Singh won the Indian Grand Prix with a personal best of 6.76m, which is seven centimetres short of the women’s national long jump record of 6.83m set by Bobby George. Only 19, Singh is touted as the next big thing in Indian athletics and is set to make her World Championship debut in Budapest.

Also Read World Champions Nikhat Zareen and Lovlina Borgohain lead India's boxing charge

Meanwhile, Yarraji—whose father worked as a private security guard and mother as a domestic help—has turned overcoming hurdles into her livelihood. The 23-year-old from Vishakhapatnam is the only Indian woman to run 100m hurdles in under 13 seconds. She won gold at the Asian Athletics Championships in July and recorded a personal best of 12.78 seconds at the World University Games earlier this month. She certainly seems to have the right momentum going into the world event.

From athletes like Yarraji and Singh, who are looking to use the World Championship as a launching pad, to Chopra who looks primed for gold, India has a heady mix of competitors at different stages of their life and career. With the biggest contingent at hand, they are hoping to make this their best World Championship.

Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.

Also Read Saweety Boora, Nitu Ghanghas punch their way to boxing glory

Next Story