Right now, it’s not easy being Neeraj Chopra. He belongs to everyone and everyone wants a piece of him. Yes, he is modest to a fault and extremely accommodating. Yes, he is carrying the weight of path-breaking historical achievement lightly on his shoulders. Yes, he is even loving all the adulation.
Yet this pioneering 23-year-old javelin thrower knows the transience of such attention. He knows people will celebrate and forget and get back to their lives. He knows he will have to keep improving, keep bettering himself. He knows a sporting revolution may still elude India, even after his gold-winning feat. Neeraj Chopra, however, is determined to do something about that last bit. Determined to showcase that the talent is there.
That the belief isn’t lacking. That smart effort can usher in a sea change in our perceptions and achievements. It’s not easy being Neeraj Chopra right now, because it never was. This is because he is simply exceptional.
And also extremely intelligent and compassionate, as we found out during a more-than-hour long chat on Tuesday. Sixteen days after winning gold, Neeraj Chopra is all too aware of the power of his legacy. And the legacy is in safe hands.
Excerpts from the conversation…
How many zoom meetings have you attended since that evening in Tokyo?
(Smiles) I have lost count. I slept at 4.30 in the morning on the day I won gold in Tokyo. All this while, I have been attending zoom meetings!
You even fell ill after a few days as your public commitments first increased and then appeared to reach a frenzy…
I had fever. I used to be drenched in sweat while attending functions and then I used to get into air-conditioned cars. I wasn’t getting any rest and I wasn’t eating properly because of the busy routine.
These things need to change. It’s a nice thing that a medal has come but everything needs to be systematic.
Aisa nahin hona chahiye ki ab medal aa gaya toh sab abhi kar do, aur phir ek mahiney baad sab shaant ho jao (it shouldn’t be as if we have to complete every celebration immediately because an Olympic gold medal has come, and then forget about it after a month). The sport needs continuous attention.
It shouldn’t be that you start remembering the athletes again after four years after the initial frenzy. These things can be done in small amounts over a period time.
Did you ever think you’ll get such a reception?
Yes, I knew things would be huge. This was an Olympic medal, and that too a gold, India’s first medal in athletics. I knew.
How do you strike a balance when it comes to this mass adulation, this sudden popularity?
The attention is indeed important, but there’s a Diamond League at the end of the month. I had planned to participate in it, but my training stopped completely once I returned from the Olympic Games because of the incessant number of functions. I also fell sick.
This is why I feel my fitness is not up there now. I can’t compete properly. That’s why I have to skip the event. I had planned to compete in at least two-three events.
These things need to change in Indian sport. All other Olympic champions are participating in Diamond Leagues. Their season is continuing.
We can’t be satisfied with one gold medal. We need to think at a global level. We need to continuously perform at global events like the Diamond Leagues.
So, you will turn away people if you win another gold medal next time!
(Laughs) I won’t turn them away but I’ll tell them there’s another competition and training is very important. Next time I’ll ensure I keep training, unlike this time.
How much do you think about that evening’s gold-winning throw? You didn’t look at the javelin even once after that throw…
It wasn’t just in Tokyo that I turned around after throwing. I did it in the Grand Prix, the Federation Cup and even during the Asian Games. Once I throw, I immediately know how well I have done, or how badly, from the effort I have put in and the way the rhythm and technique comes together. My technique is such that even if I turn my back on the throw, I understand what I have thrown and I start celebrating.
My aim is to do better than I did in Tokyo. I am glad I won the Olympic gold. I may have got the national record, but I am trying to breach the 90-metre barrier.
On the day of the javelin finals in Tokyo, what were your expectations from yourself?
I was thinking about throwing my best. My best would have anyway fetched me a medal. But I knew anything could happen on the day. Johannes Vetter was in good form but it was also a kind of pressure for him. If you revisit the 2019 World Championships, there was a list of really good throwers. The favourites were Andreas Hofmann, Thomas Rohler, Vetter and Magnus Kirt.
It was believed all three medals would be shared between them. But Anderson Peters, who competed with me in the CWG, won gold, that too with a throw of 86 metres. After that I understood that anything can happen on a given day.
I can’t obsess about the big names. It is about playing freely. I was clear in my head that there was no need to feel any pressure because of the field. It was about focusing on myself. Medals are decided on the day, not before that.
So you were satisfied with your throw?
I was satisfied, yes. There were very good athletes there in Tokyo but they couldn’t perform up to the mark on the day. They were saying they faced some problems with the track. It felt slippery. I was happy because I could perform when everyone else was struggling.
It may not have been my personal best but it was close to it. The best thing is that there were two throws which were more than 87 metres. That showed consistency. I believe a 90m throw is important but if you give consistent performances like I have been doing, that’s also good.
Can you tell us about your routine on that gold-medal day?
Before my event, I was concentrating on my diet, taking optimum rest. For the first few days in Tokyo, I faced some issues as I was coming from Sweden. I was not able to sleep properly. A day before the final, I had thought of sleeping early but I only managed to sleep at midnight. Then woke up at 5 am. My mind was full of thoughts. I was thinking about the stadium, the surrounding, how I am going to throw, how my body will react.
I knew it was the biggest day of my sporting career. Pressure wasn’t there, but all these thoughts were going in my mind. After breakfast, I tried to rest for a bit, but I could sleep for only one hour. Some things were out of my control, I was trying not to think about them but still those thoughts were coming. In the end, everything worked out well.
Your immediate rival, the German Vetter, has seven 90-plus throws. Did you even imagine Vetter would flunk like that come the day of the Olympic Games finals?
I had never imagined. He has thrown 96-plus this year. Last year, he had touched 97. I could have never imagined a consistent athlete like him would go through an experience like that on the Olympic stage. We were thinking he may break the Olympic record, which is 90.57 and belongs to Norway’s Andreas Thorkildsen.
I can’t imagine how he was feeling. But Vetter is a great athlete. There’s simply no doubt about that.
Why wasn’t Vetter his usual self in Tokyo?
I feel Vetter started his season quite early. He was taking part in too many competitions. In between, he had a problem with his adductor muscle and suffered a slight injury. There is a particular time of the year when a javelin thrower peaks. We maintain that peak by playing a certain amount of competitions. But if we take part in too many competitions and travel a lot, that also affects the fitness level. It tends to go down somewhat. I think he peaked too early.
In every competition, he was throwing 90-plus. It was not just about the Olympics. In the two competitions prior, he wasn’t able to match his lofty standard. At the Diamond League in UK and in another competition in Germany, he managed throws of 85-86m. The weather at the Olympics was also not suitable for him. In Tokyo, it was quite hot. He generally starts his warm-up quite early and the hot conditions meant a lot of his energy was sapped.
Another issue I think was his new spikes. Other throwers were also saying that he was wearing new spikes, which he hadn’t used in any previous competition. I, somehow, feel he wasn’t used to those spikes.
Javelin can be a difficult sport for children to relate to. It is technical and lacks role models in India. As a kid, did you feel any special connection with the javelin when you first got hold of one?
At my village, we used to play a lot of sports like cricket and volleyball. Even in the stadium where I went, there were a lot of sports played. But when I saw other athletes throwing the javelin, I was thrilled to see the flight of the javelin and the way it landed on the turf. I wanted to do the same thing. I wanted to learn the sport.
When I first threw it, it was fun. I could feel there was a special bond. It was February 2011. There was a senior called Jay Chaudhary who is now a coach at the Patiala national camp. He helped me a lot. There is a boy named Sahil and girl called Sanjana who are doing well under him.
Can you throw some light on the years of training which led to gold? What was the journey like from throwing 40-50m – when you first started – to 88m?
For a first-timer, the mark I had reached then was quite good! The seniors also liked my effort. It’s not just the javelin. Let’s take the example of painting. When someone starts painting, one doesn’t immediately become a master. With practice, one improves gradually. It’s the same with a javelin.
A lot of time needs to be invested in making a good javelin thrower. We have to make ourselves physically fit, improve our strength with age, improve our technique and fitness levels and also make sure our throws keep getting better.
I have reached this level one step at a time. Now the challenge for me is to improve mentally and physically so that I can breach the 90m mark. I am ready for it and I am sure I can go beyond it too.
How much did your training stint abroad help?
I went abroad after my surgery in 2019. At that point, I hadn’t competed much with my rivals, the people I was going to face at the Olympic level. It was necessary to compete against them so that I could be prepared mentally. I managed to play in competitions and also trained, which I feel helped me in Tokyo. I could’ve trained in India too, say at the Inspire Institute of Sports facility in Karnataka, but the weather at that time was very hot and not suitable for training for long hours.
How is the relationship between the top international javelin throwers? What kind of interaction do you guys have? And how did they congratulate you when you won the gold medal?
We share a good relationship, all the top javelin throwers. We talk nicely with each other and also congratulate one another on social media. If someone needs any kind of help, we don’t take a backward step. All of them congratulated me.
Talking about breaching the 90m mark, do you think you need to be more muscular like Vetter or remain lithe and flexible like you are now?
I would like to give you the example of Jan Zelezny, who is my favourite javelin thrower. He holds the world record of 98.48m. He is not someone who is very muscular. In javelin, we do not have any weight categories. Every thrower has his individual type of body. If I try to become like Vetter – become strong and increase my weight – I might lose my positives, my speed and flexibility. The body type I have, I need to make improvements in my game with only that. I would like to say that Zelezny had 34 throws over the 90m mark.
What about your ‘falling’ technique? Is it something special? Did Klaus Bartonietz or Uwe Hohn or Gary Calvert introduce this in your game at a later stage?
It isn’t a technique as such. It happens naturally to me when I am participating. In training, I throw normally and don’t fall. It has been like this since the start.
Even in 2011-12, I used to fall like now. When I am in training, I concentrate on my technique but during competitions I give it my all. My speed is also better, my effort is also more. That’s why perhaps I fall after releasing the spear. It happens automatically. If you look at Vetter, he too falls down, similarly.
What did you do with the gold-winning javelin?
I had chosen two javelins for the final. One of them was gifted to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Every medallist gifted him something during the breakfast interaction at his residence. PV Sindhu gave him a racquet, Lovlina gave her boxing gloves, the hockey team gave a signed hockey stick. The other javelin is with me. I am planning to keep it at a sports museum or at the IIS, which has its museum, so that athletes can get inspired and motivated by it.
Do you have any superstitions regarding a favourite javelin?
No. I have won medals at the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, Olympics with different javelins. I believe in hard work and preparation. If I have prepared well, I know I can do my best with any javelin.
What’s your favourite dish? Something that your mother cooks for you…
Everyone now knows about choorma, as a result wherever I go people are getting plates of choorma in front of me. At my house, I really like eating vegetable biriyani. In Haryana, it is called namkeen chawal. That’s something I love to eat, along with raita. I know how to cook namkeen chawal really well!
Do you have cheat days?
Currently, every day is a cheat day, especially after the Olympics (laughs). I have skipped some future international competitions and that’s why the rules that I had set for myself stand broken. Now everyone is giving me so many sweets, but I know where to draw the line. After all this attention dies down, it will be on me to reduce weight and do all the hard work again!
There is a training video of yours where you are jumping hurdles. How many times do you do this training in a week?
Jumps, we do two-three times a week. There are box jumps, sand jumps, hurdle jumps. These are very important for us. It helps in gaining explosive strength. Our joints, knees, glutes, legs, shoulders – overall strength gets increased due to the jumps training. I like doing jumps training a lot. It helps in bettering our fitness levels, gain speed and explosive power.
Which javelin do you prefer to use, the Nemeth or the Nordic? And which one did you use at the Olympics?
I like Nemeth as well as Nordic. In Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games, the World Junior Championships, the Asian Championships, I won medals using the Nemeth. At present, for some time, I am using the Nordic because the new javelin Nordic has come up with is really good. It depends on the day. If Nordic is not working, I use the Nemeth. In Tokyo, I used the Nordic javelin, it gave me the gold (laughs).
How much has life changed in these 16 days since you won India’s first track and field Olympic gold? Is this adulation a pressure?
I started getting used to this adulation from the time I won the World Junior Championships. When I returned from the competition, I was getting so much attention from all quarters. Then the CWG and Asian Games happened. But what I am experiencing after the Olympics is a different thing altogether. Stadiums are being named after me. These things are important in their own way.
I need to understand how I can use the media to inspire the next generation. I will get used to it. Training for an Olympic gold was in my control, but this adulation is very new to me. I’ll take some time to figure how I can communicate with the world and talk about what we need to do next.
I want to talk about how I want to focus on my sport and performance, and also about how Indian athletics and sports can be improved by providing the kind the facilities we need to grow as a sporting country.
The most important thing right now is that our country needs to host big events where star athletes like Vetter come and play, so that our people get to know more about athletics. Our people should know what athletics is in reality, and what it takes for these athletes to perform. People should understand why athletics is so different to sports like cricket. I intend to work on this. I want the media to help in this.