Neeraj, Nadeem and triumph of sports over ‘nasty’ politics

Neeraj Chopra and Arshad Nadeem may be rivals inside the sporting arena but they are great friends beyond it and forming something even greater together.

Neeraj has become a household name for the sports lovers as the Indian made history winning an Olympic gold medal in javelin in Tokyo in 2021. It was the first ever gold for India in athletics at the gala event.  

The 25-year-old, who was born in the historic Panipat of Haryana, made the headlines once again as he created another history to win first ever gold for India in the World Championship of Athletics. Chopra won the top spot in Budapest on Sunday throwing an impressive 88.17 metres, but the same event saw another history which is not lesser in many aspects than that of the Indian.

Arshad Nadeem, a 26-year-old stout Pakistani, threw 87.82 metres to get the second spot. And the season’s best of the Pakistani despite coming back from an elbow and knee surgery, made him the first ever from his country to win a medal in the World Championship.

In the era of populism, bigotry and the toxic politics between the two nations over the last two decades may create such a rivalry potentially a jingoist one but both the master javelin throwers seemed to throw away such malice acts with disdain

It was, however, not a major surprise as Arshad threw an eye-popping 90.18 metres last year in the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, where Neeraj was absent for injury, to clinch the gold.

Nadeem may not yet receive the brightest spotlight like his competitor but over the years his gradual improvement has been impressive and it can be safely said he will be the biggest challenge for the Indian in the next Olympic set to take place in Paris next year.

In the era of populism, bigotry and the toxic politics between the two nations over the last two decades may create such a rivalry potentially a jingoist one but both the master javelin throwers seemed to throw away such malice acts with disdain.

"I felt good that Arshad threw well. We spoke and discussed how both our countries are growing now. Earlier there were European athletes but now we have reached their level," the gold medalist Chopra said after winning.

And Nadeem almost echoed him with the spirit that seems to prick all the obnoxious dreams of the people who want fake division and animosity among the people on either side of the frontiers.

"Neeraj and I have a very healthy competition and we respect each other a lot. There is no Pakistan-India rivalry in a bad way. When we talk, we are just happy that both of us have come to the fore in a competition usually dominated by Europeans," Nadeem said.

The two rivals of the arena looked really sincere to their words as many times they were seen enjoying their success in events worldwide and there was no exception in Budapest where the Indian embraced the Pakistani during his victory lap with the flag of his country.

Many believe the people of South Asia are not fit for sports and they thrive only in cricket which albeit its claim of being a global sport is played only in few countries seriously. It is true the physical traits and atmosphere gives an extra mileage in sports but in modern day those may be overcome through rigorous training, planning and support.

China is a big example, as the country wins many medals in each edition of the Olympics and even considering their numerical advantage the theory of ‘genetic superiority’ is disproved.

India, with its economic progress and aspiration to become a global power, has been serious over the last few years to produce some champions across the sporting events and Chopra is a good outcome of that process.

Pakistan, on the other hand, struggles with its socioeconomic and political indexes but people like Nadeem proves people in South Asia have the mettle to become the best. And more importantly, it is not from the spirit of jingoism but with the positive mindset of rivalry in the arena with friendship beyond it. The pan South Asian feeling can be a great source of inspiration for people in this part of the world where they will compete with each other but with that process spread friendship and determination to fight against the rest of the world.

One may say, the mindset of toppling down the Europeans, or west in broader sense is a kind of racism itself but to combat territorial populism it is a great way. The colonial powers subjugated this part of the world and created a profound division not only through a faulty Radcliffe Line but by nurturing the communal hatred for the sake of their ruling. Unfortunately, the politicians in the post-colonial times also followed the suit to continue harmful practices across the nations.

Sports have already been used as the apparatus to flame such hatred. We have seen in the last few decades how cricket has become a tool for the jingoists. The tours between India and Pakistan cricket teams between the countries are stopped and millions of people are deprived of the great, sweet rivalry. Virat Kohli, one of the greatest in the era is yet to play a Test match against Pakistan and in all likelihood, he will finish his career without playing against the neighbouring country.

Indeed, the tension between the countries has existed ever since their independence but in earlier eras crickets actually triumphed over the politicians to bind the amity. There are numerous stories about the lifelong friendship between the players of these two countries.

Suniil Gavaskar and Zaheer Abbas, two legends of the game used to share the same hotel room during their endeavour as rest of the world players at Australia in 1971-72. Even the war in Bangladesh, where India and Pakistan were on opposite sides, could not breach their friendship.

Later on, we observed Gavaskar and Imran Khan forming a brilliant 180-run stand to salvage the Rest of World XI against MCC in their bicentennial Test back in 1987.

It was a great era for cricket romantics as former Indian wicketkeeper Kiran More recalls how they celebrated together. During Pakistan’s tour of India, the first four Tests ended in draws and despite the final one became so crucial the players did not forget to enjoy the Holi festival together at their Bangalore hotel. More recalls, how they painted the hotel red, threw colours to each other and sang but did not abstain from sledging as soon as they took the field.

But in a grander narrative the biggest knot of the countries took place as they hosted the World Cup same year. It was the watershed moment in the political history of cricket as for the first-time big event was hosted outside England and South Asians started to grasp the reign of the game gradually.

They hosted another World Cup within nine years and saw a rising South Asian power Sri Lanka clinching the title. In that tournament, Australia and West Indies forfeited their games against Sri Lanka citing the terrorists’ activities. To avert the loss of the Lankans, amid the busy schedule of the World Cup, India and Pakistan formed a combined side and travelled to the Island nation to play against the hosts and upheld the spirit of South Asia.

That very spirit saw Bangladesh getting the Test status in four years of time albeit huge lampooning from the major cricketing nations from the other side of the globe. Over the years, Bangladesh justified the decision as they improved and became a force to reckon with despite being a perennial loser initially.

In the post-colonial era, the regional unity is vital and the support that Bangladesh got is a great example that helping the neighbour is necessary not only to thrive but also efface some historical injustice.

Unfortunately, that spirit has waned. India and Pakistan have become nuclear superpowers but their politicians failed largely to provide the basic needs to their people. Evidently, the jingoism came to the fore as the politicians resorted to nasty tactics.

Despite that, it is known that the players from sub-continents are great friends even in the current era.  Sourav Ganguly enjoys his friendship with Wasim Akram and hails Shoaib Akter as a great human being despite the latter once striking his chest with fiery pace. For linguistics Hindi-Urdu is uttered in the same bracket despite their written form being different as their spoken form is same. No wonder, the friendship between the people of these countries is great despite all the political hullabaloo.

Cricket is discussed as the sport is used as a tool for nationalism and hatred for neighbours, the situation is the same in the other sports and indeed the lay people have good feelings for each other. Regional amity is the first step of gaining a global peace. Sports have the power to harness that.

Neeraj and Nadeem show us that dream. It may be far-fetched but it is possible. Like, who could think an Indian and a Pakistani are the two best athletes in a certain event in the world? The sporting spirit may one day fulfill the apparent impossible dream.

The thing is perhaps most aptly said by Neeraj’s mother, Saroj Devi.

“A player is a player, it doesn't matter where he comes from, I am glad that the Pakistani player (Arshad Nadeem) won as well.”

The word of a mother may defy many odds and obstacles created by politicians, war-mongers and hatred-vendors.