Neeraj Chopra vs Arshad Nadeem in javelin throw at Asian Games 2023 — expect fireworks and then a handshake

When he was rushed to the broadcasters’ zone, right after he had won silver in the men’s javelin throw event at the World Championships, Pakistan’s Arshad Nadeem was asked to explain what his medal meant to him and his country. The 26-year-old explained the significance of the first-ever world medal won for his country, but then, right after the biggest achievement in his sporting career, he made sure to congratulate the only opponent who had bested him that day in Budapest. “I’m so happy for Neeraj bhai,” Nadeem would say of India’s Neeraj Chopra, who won gold. “India and Pakistan are number one and two in Asia. I hope next year we will do the same at the Olympics,” Nadeem said.

These words of generosity may appear surprising, especially considering the long-standing political tensions between Pakistan and India, which often cast a shadow over sporting competitions between the two nations. However, if you have followed the careers of Nadeem and Chopra closely, you would recognise that the goodwill expressed by the 26-year-old Pakistani athlete towards his 25-year-old Indian counterpart at the Athletics World Championships was not out of the ordinary.

In fact, over the past few years, the two athletes have shared, if not a friendship, certainly a healthy mutual appreciation and respect for each other’s skills in their sport. Even before the final competition, Nadeem had conveyed his best wishes to the Indian athlete. “ Neeraj bhai, aap bhi achcha karein, hum bhi achcha karein. Aapka naam hai world mein, hamara bhi naam aye (Neeraj brother, hope you and I both do well. You are famous globally. Hopefully, I will make my name as well),” Nadeem told Sportstar in Budapest.

READ: Asian Games 2023: From rookie to superstar, Neeraj Chopra returns to the stage where his sporting success began

In 2018, a viral photograph captured a genuine moment of camaraderie between Chopra and Nadeem at the Asian Games. Standing on the podium in Jakarta, both draped in their national flags, they exchanged handshakes after the men’s javelin throw event, where Chopra won gold and Nadeem secured bronze. This memorable incident was not their first encounter. In 2016, at the South Asian Games in Guwahati, in their first international competition, Chopra claimed gold and Nadeem took home bronze. In 2016, Chopra and Nadeem’s achievements at the South Asian Games in Guwahati went largely unnoticed. Back then, both athletes were relatively unknown outside track-and-field circles. Chopra had shown promise domestically, but the javelin throw wasn’t a widely successful event in India. The most notable result until then had been Kashinath Naik’s bronze at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Nadeem was even less recognised in Pakistan.

Gold medallist India’s Neeraj Chopra (L) shakes hands with bronze medallist Arshad Nadeem of Pakistan during the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta.

Gold medallist India’s Neeraj Chopra (L) shakes hands with bronze medallist Arshad Nadeem of Pakistan during the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta.
| Photo Credit:
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images


Gold medallist India’s Neeraj Chopra (L) shakes hands with bronze medallist Arshad Nadeem of Pakistan during the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta.
| Photo Credit:
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images

Nadeem would speak highly of what was his first competition outside Pakistan. “It was a memorable trip. We came to Amritsar from Lahore by road. Aap log badi khatir aur izzat karte ho (you people are great hosts). I would love to compete in India again,” Nadeem was quoted as saying after the competition.

It helped that Chopra and Nadeem, despite coming from different sides of the border, shared similar humble beginnings. Both hail from villages far from major sporting hubs. Chopra, the son of a farmer, grew up in Khandra village near Panipat district in Haryana, while Nadeem also had a modest upbringing in Mian Channu village in Khanewal district of Pakistan’s Punjab province.

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Beyond their backgrounds, Nadeem, whose family originally hails from Punjab’s Faridkot district before the 1947 partition of India, deeply admired the Indian thrower, considering him a pioneer in the sport. “Whenever he (Arshad) comes home, he will always watch videos of javelin throw. We would see the videos of the Indian boy on his phone. Arshad hamesha ohre bare gal karda hai (Arshad always talks about Neeraj),” Nadeem’s father, Muhammad Ashraf, would say in an interview.

Although he hasn’t openly discussed his experiences in Guwahati, it is known that the Pakistani athlete would frequently communicate with not only Chopra but also with other emerging Indian javelin throwers who were beginning to make an impact on the global stage.

It’s easy to see why Nadeem was inspired by Chopra, whose meteoric rise began after the South Asian Games in Guwahati. By 2018, the spotlight was firmly on him as he secured gold at the 2016 Junior World Championships, the 2017 Asian Championships, and the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Jakarta marked a historic moment as Chopra became the first Indian javelin thrower to clinch Asian Games gold, setting a new national record. Nadeem’s bronze, also a national record, was Pakistan’s first in the event at the Asian Games since Muhammad Nawaz’s silver in 1962.

But even though Nadeem had ended a long drought for his nation, he would insist the Indian was his role model. “Neeraj is an amazing talent. His achievement inspires me, and my goal is to emulate him one day—maybe beat him too,” Nadeem would say after the Asian Games final in Jakarta.

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Nadeem would even complain that the Indian wasn’t responding to his text messages as often as he used to earlier. “ Neeraj bhai jawab hi nahin dete. He has done it only a couple of times, and after that, he stopped. I don’t know the reason. Maybe he is busy. He has got great technique,” Nadeem would say at the Asian Games.

Chopra would eventually warm up to the Pakistani thrower. After winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics, Chopra defended Nadeem, who finished fifth and faced accusations of “stealing” Chopra’s javelin during the competition. Chopra posted a video message urging people not to spread false claims as the rules permitted sharing equipment.

A few months later, Chopra would meet Nadeem at the World Championships, where the Indian would place on the podium and the Pakistani fifth. “I spoke to Arshad after the competition. I told him that he did very well. He replied that he had issues with his elbow. I further congratulated him for a great throw; it was a great comeback from his injury, and it was commendable that he threw the javelin over 86 metres.” Chopra had said.

Later, when Nadeem won the gold in the CWG games in Birmingham with a Games-record throw of 90.17m in the absence of Chopra due to injury, the Pakistani athlete wished Chopra a quick recovery. “I missed him in the competition here. Mashallah, he is a very good friend. Inshallah, Allah Tallah unko bhi sehat de, woh hote toh aur bhi maza aata (May God grant him good health; if he were here, it would have been more fun),” Nadeem said. In reply, Chopra would also publicly congratulate Nadeem on Instagram. Congratulations, Arshad bhai, for the gold medal and for crossing 90 metres with the new Games record. Aage ke competitions ke liye all the best (sic)“ Chopra would post.

Chopra’s support extended beyond Nadeem. When Pakistan’s Muhammad Yasir won bronze at the Asian Championships in Nadeem’s absence, Chopra surprised him with a congratulatory call, wishing him luck for future events. Sharing the podium with another Indian, DP Manu, both Yasir and Manu acknowledged their inspiration from Nadeem and Chopra, highlighting their pioneering roles in the growth of javelin throw in their respective countries.

When Nadeem and Chopra finally met at this year’s World Championships, their camaraderie remained strong. However, with both striving to make their mark, a new dynamic emerged, reflecting their growth as world-class throwers. While Chopra has consistently outperformed Nadeem in their head-to-head competitions, the gap has been steadily closing. In 2018, Chopra held a substantial lead of nearly 7.5 metres over Nadeem in Jakarta. However, in Budapest, the difference had narrowed to just 35 cm, slightly longer than a standard school measuring ruler. This sets the stage for intense competition at the Hangzhou Asian Games. There are strong contenders from both nations, but Chopra and Nadeem are the clear favourites.

Could we see another showdown like the one in Budapest? Athletics fans will certainly hope so. The contest will be once again built up as an India vs. Pakistan clash. The two athletes, meanwhile, will simply be trying to give their best. Expect fireworks and then, most likely, a handshake.

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