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Neeraj Chopra Sets His Eyes On Paris Gold

By Vaibhav Raghunandan
January 01, 2024 10:24 IST
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In 2022, he raced past Usain Bolt, 'the world's fastest man', to become the world's most written-about athlete.

The attention has followed a stream of medals: Asian Games gold twice, an Olympic gold, and silver and gold at the World Athletics Championships.

IMAGE: Neeraj Chopra after winning the Gold medal in the men's javelin throw final at the Asian Games, in Hangzhou. Photograph: ANI Photo

"When I'm on a flight, I always look out of the window as we take off and count the sports facilities in the city," Neeraj Chopra says.

"In Europe or America, I can count many before we hit the clouds. Then I think about the kids who have access to them. That's a key thing to remember."

Chopra began training in javelin at 13 at the Shivaji stadium in Panipat, Haryana, primarily to shed extra weight.

Though the stadium was a few kilometres away, it had the necessary facilities and coaches who could spot talent and hone it.

He had gravitated towards the javelin out of intrigue, but it soon became a passion.


IMAGE: Neeraj Chopra celebrates on the podium with his gold medal after winning the men's javelin throw final alongside silver medallist Pakistan's Arshad Nadeem and bronze medallist Czech Republic's Jakub Vadlejch at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest, Hungary, August 27, 2023. Photograph: Marton Monus/Reuters

The journey to this interview has been long. We are to meet for coffee, but Chopra has no need for caffeine even though he has switched multiple time zones and traversed continents to finally land in Delhi.

I am not in the city for the one time it might have been worth it, but coffee in hand I am eagerly waiting for him to join our virtual meeting.

For months, I have chased him. For months, he has been out of the country, either competing or training. And just when he is in India, I am in Amsterdam.

He's here for a promotional event for Optimum Nutrition and is a big name for the company to sign on.

The Olympian, who is careful about the brands he endorses, says the goals of this one align with his.

Over the past four years, Chopra has transitioned from a potential Olympic medallist to a once-in-a-generation athlete.

It could be argued that the 'golden boy' is single-handedly responsible for boosting viewership for athletic competitions in India.

In 2022, he raced past Usain Bolt, 'the world's fastest man', to become the world's most written-about athlete.

The attention has followed a stream of medals: Asian Games gold twice, an Olympic gold, and silver and gold at the World Athletics Championships.

His dazzling performance has also brought other Indian athletes under the spotlight.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodaras Modi interacts with Neeraj Chopra and Indian athletes who participated in the Asian Games at the Major Dhyan Chand national stadium in New Delhi. Photograph: ANI Photo

The first time the world noticed Chopra was when he won gold at the World Athletics U20 Championships in 2016 in Poland, with a world record of 86.48m -- one that stands in that age group to date.

It was immediately apparent that this was a generational talent, someone who could do magical things.

In the years since, Chopra has only worked harder to justify the hype. He spends most of his year away from home, either training in Europe or competing through the summer.

The training is driven not just by the competition but also by a desire to continuously improve.

My interview notes, initially centred around questions about Tokyo 2020, are scratched out and updated with questions about the Oregon World Championships 2022 and then scratched out again for questions about the 2023 summer, where he won gold in Budapest, the Doha Diamond League and the Asian Games in Hangzhou.

Fearing that every week might seem outdated when dealing with an elite athlete like him, I have chosen to go in a different direction with this interview, talking not about the javelin throw but how this sport has shaped a country's athletic education.

IMAGE: General Manoj Pande, chief of the army staff, felicitates Subedar Neeraj Chopra after he won the gold medal at the Hangzhou Asian Games 2023 at the Manekshaw Centre in New Delhi. Photograph: ANI Photo

Chopra, 25, tackles this line of questioning in a noticeably fresh way. Asked how we can produce more world-class athletes, he goes back to his story of counting stadiums from an aeroplane window.

"It's about access -- the right kind of access, and the right kind of coaching and mentoring," he says animatedly, displaying no sign of fatigue from the travel and long press interactions.

"If you make sports an important facet of education, then you automatically incentivise it." Children, he says, shouldn't play sport only to be successful at it; they should play to enjoy it and learn from it.

India's vast population, often touted as a strength, masks the challenges of limited access to sports infrastructure and coaching.

In a cricket-dominated landscape, Chopra stands out, showcasing excellence not only as a brand but as a unique athlete.

The record speaks for itself. He has won a medal every year since his foray into the mainstream consciousness at the Asian Games in 2018.

Year on year, event on event, his mark has improved. The coveted 90-metre mark, a world standard in javelin, is yet to be breached though.

"People always ask me about it, but frankly, I don't pressure myself with it. I know it will come in due course," he says.

Critical thinking is part of Chopra's personality. He answers questions but also questions everything.

This no-holds-barred approach puts the interviewer under as much pressure as him.

I am churning through ideas while talking, trying to ask a question that may be novel to him, but then wonder if I'm trying too hard.

I decide to register a mark on the board first. Change must come from within. What role does the media have in all of this?

He smiles. Widely. "A huge role," he says. "We need more informed journalists -- journalists who are into the sport, not the spectacle."

In practically every interview nowadays, people ask him about Arshad Nadeem, the Pakistani javelin thrower who won silver at the World Championships and is the first South Asian to hit the 90 metre mark.

They make any competition into an India-Pakistan thing, he says. "But there are so many more nationalities in the javelin event, and it's not a one-on-one competition at all. It gets tiring for me to answer, honestly."

IMAGE: Gold medalist Neeraj Chopra, Silver medalist Kishore Kumar Jena with Bronze medalist Japan's Genki Dean at the Asian Games in Hangzhou. Photograph: Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Merely three weeks before we speak, Chopra won gold at the Asian Games -- his second.

It was a full-circle moment for him, seeing as this was where the four-year javelin mania began.

What delights him more, though, is that there was a familiar face on the podium with him: Kishore Jena.

"It's always thrilling to have an Indian in the event and it really makes me so happy when I'm competing against one," he says.

This seems like the first PR kind of answer he has given, but then he expands the map.

"It's not just Jena,: he says. "We are doing great at javelin everywhere. Sumit [Antil] is constantly setting new world records in the para javelin. Sundar Singh [Gurjar] also set a new world record recently. Then, of course, Devender Jhajharia has been a pioneer in this event and is still going strong. We are good at this. And why not? As a people, we have great flexibility, fast arms and a hard-working mentality."

My phone starts to buzz. It's his manager. We are running over time, he tells me.

One last question then. Having shot for the top, I now go for the lowest hanging fruit. What plans next?

Pat comes the reply: "Enjoy some time off at home with friends and family. Switch off from this so that I can switch on again. The season will start soon. And Paris is around the corner."

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/

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Vaibhav Raghunandan
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