Tokyo 2020: Javelin friends turn foes as Neeraj Chopra renews rivalry with Johannes Vetter

The Haryana lad will have to overcome stiff competition from the former World Champion in his quest for India's first-ever athletics medal at the Olympics

Tokyo 2020: Javelin friends turn foes as Neeraj Chopra renews rivalry with Johannes Vetter
India's Neeraj Chopra (L) and Johannes Vetter of Germany are set to face off in the javelin throw event of the Tokyo Olympics beginning August 4. (Pics: AFP)

At the 1960 Rome Olympics, two friends and classmates at the University of California, Los Angeles — Taiwan’s Yang Chuan-kwang and Rafer Johnson of America — put up their most competitive spirit on display in the decathlon.

It was almost a see-saw battle among the two for the entire duration of eight events as the lead swung like a pendulum between them. The decathlon, usually, a poorer cousin in the track and field competition, was enjoying tremendous crowd support; fans cheering for both.

Johnson grabbed a slight lead in the ninth, still it was not easy for him to pocket the gold as Yang was the favourite for the 1500m event.

With both being coached by Elvin C Drake, the fierceness of their rivalry made it a nail-biting contest. Legend has it that Drake’s advice worked in Johnson’s favour as the coach had asked him to stay as close to Yang as possible throughout the race.

Finally, the American despite coming 1.2 seconds short of Yang was able to clinch the decathlon gold by 58 points with a then Olympic record of 8,392 points.

The lasting image of the competition was Johnson leaning on Yang after crossing the finish line, showcasing the Olympic spirit of friendship and sportsmanship.

Something similar is simmering between javelin throw superstar Johannes Vetter of Germany and India’s strongest athletics medal hope Neeraj Chopra.

On the field, their javelins would talk, its trajectory deciding their fate. Vetter, it needs to be said, is the gold medal favourite. Chopra, hunting for one; if it happens it would be India’s first ever Olympic track and field medal.

Off the field, they are friends.

Vetter, in an interaction organised by World Athletics, has made it clear that Chopra might be good, but the Haryana lad wouldn’t be able to beat him in Tokyo come August 4. The finals are slated for August 7.

“He (Chopra) threw good throws twice this year, above 86m in Finland. If he is healthy and if he is in the right shape, especially in his technique, he can throw far,” Vetter said in an interaction with select international media.

“But he has to fight with me. I am looking to throw over 90m in Tokyo, so it will be tough for him to beat me.”

Being a former world champion, the German is a hot favourite to claim gold in Japan; being the only man in the world to have thrown beyond 90 metres in the past 24 months. Vetter has done that 18 times in total, including a record streak of seven tournaments from April to June this season.

Vetter even threatened the world record last year, throwing 97.76m in Silesia, Poland to move to second on the world all-time list. His throw was just 72cm shy of the long-standing world record of 98.48m set by Czech legend Jan Zelezny.

The duo first met in 2018 at Offenburg in Germany when both trained at the same facility.

Chopra was then on a three-month stint in Germany under prominent coach Werner Daniels. He finished second behind Vetter in a competition there.

Three years later, the duo met again in Finland during the Kuortane Games in Finland last month and they even travelled together in the same car from Helsinki.

“Neeraj is a really friendly person. We shared a car for four hours from Helsinki to Kuortane and we spoke a lot about javelin, family and other things,” Vetter told PTI.

“I am always interested in our cultures, our nations, how sport is going on in different countries and so on. We had some good discussions, and we talked a lot.”

The 28-year-old Vetter won in Kuortane with a massive throw of 93.59m while Chopra was third with 86.79m.

The 23-year-old Indian, a medal prospect in Tokyo Olympics, has a personal best of 88.07m.

Chopra, on his part, said he enjoyed his time with Vetter in 2018 and again last month.

“We had conversations about Indians and Indian food. My English is not that great, but I did manage to speak something about the sport, the technique, our throws and all that,” Chopra said.

He may be in the form of his life, but Vetter does not want to be under pressure thinking of breaking the world record during the Olympics. Instead, he said winning gold in Tokyo would be his priority.

“Not really (world record). Javelin throw is difficult, technique is very tough. Everything must come together. The wind condition will have to be perfect; the surface will have to be perfect and the technique.

“You have to think over all angles, speed, etc. I know I am in a very good shape, but I don’t want to put that much pressure on myself. I just want to enjoy a high-level competition.

“I just want to see how far it will go and just relax. My first priority this year is Olympic Games, not the record. But you never know.”

With a billion hopes on Chopra to herald a new era for Indian athletics and Vetter his toughest opponent, it remains to be seen how their friendship fuels not only the competition but brings out the best in each. It’s sad no fans would be present in the main stadium.

Whatever happens on the field, don’t be surprised if you see them bond over Indian food at a local restaurant.