Neeraj Chopra, 23 recently scripted history at the Tokyo Olympics when he won gold at javelin throw — India’s first Olympic gold medal in athletics. Gulf News caught up with the ace track and field athlete. Excerpts from the interview.
Did you ever feel that you would get this kind of love from the country especially being a non-cricketer?
I didn’t know that much but I did feel that if in the Olympics I get the gold then it is a possibility, especially because there wasn’t a medal in athletics so far. The big thing was to get a medal, and since it was gold, I knew something different will happen.
You have made javelin a household name. I am sure that there will be children now who will pick up the javelin. Do you think this will be your biggest legacy, giving back to sport, as they say?
Yes, this feeling had entered my mind that if after I win a medal children start playing javelin and start winning then my throwing the javelin will become successful and, also that for my sport and for my country I have managed to do this.
How has your family reacted? They and you have collectively given so many sacrifices for you to reach this top stage of your game. It is such a big moment for them. Has their life changed in some way?
They are so happy. I haven’t really met them yet but whatever conversations we have had, they are happy that a child from their house has done so well.
Once all the functions get over, I will go home. I don’t want to be in a position that I go home and then suddenly a phone comes and I have, to go somewhere, that is not something I want to do. When I go home, I want to go and spend some time with them in comfort and peace.
You are used to playing in front of crowds, packed stadiums where spectators encourage you and motivate you with their applause. In this silent stadium in Tokyo, how did you motivate yourself?
This has been going on from the last year when we were training in empty stadiums, and I competed as well in these stadiums so somewhere I had got used to performing like that.
Due to Covid-19, people were not coming to watch, and players had to be mentally prepared as well. That had become a habit, so I didn’t find it too much of a problem.
I want to point out that you remained so calm — before and after the throw at Tokyo except for the first and second throws when your hands went up. How do you, as an athlete competing at the top level, at the Olympics keep yourself so calm especially at a time when there is so much talk about the mental health of athletes?
I think in this our training plays a big part — what is going in our mind at that point, and what is going in our mind later when a competition is nearing. So, during training I don’t think much except about how to improve my game. Nor was I thinking daily that I should win the gold medal or that the country has expectations.
My thing is train well, eat well and recover well. The more you think about winning a medal, it becomes pressure. So, I tried not to think much and in the free time I only thought about the technique and how I can throw better.
On the day of the competition, I just thought this is the day that I have been waiting for such a long time and that today I will give my 100% no matter what. I did not want to have any regrets.
Going forward, do you feel you will now get pressure since you are the Olympic champion?
There will be some because I have won the gold and there will be expectations that I will win gold everywhere but I am trying to not let this enter my mind because training is in my hands, results we learn later and what is in my hands I will do well.
You are 23, it is an age when your friends are enjoying life and being on social media. Do you sometimes miss that life? The other life?
No, I am used to this life, and it has become a habit. I feel that if I want to go into all that like social media, roaming around or party that may, deep down, bore me.
For now, training and resting, this is the life I am happy with. But apart from javelin, I enjoy roaming around with friends, shopping, photography, driving a car — there is nothing I feel that I need to do.
You have mentioned somewhere that your father inspired you. You, live in a big joint family, who was your biggest inspiration in making the move from the love of a game as a hobby to the passion of an Olympic champion?
My uncle — my father’s younger brother has inspired me from the beginning whether it was my life or javelin. So, he has been my biggest inspiration.
What is your message to today’s children to encourage them to play a sport and do you have a message for the parents of today about letting their children pick a sport?
Yes absolutely — to the parents and even teachers in school. Children like to play in any case, and I would say let them play. Studies are very important but if along with it they are interested in sports, then they get options. Sometimes there are no options, and there is just one thing — that we have, to only study.
Everyone has a different talent and may want to use it in different things. It is not a given that whatever work you are asked to do, you will enjoy it.
Sometimes, to make your parents happy, a child studies but if she/he is instead interested in sports or singing and dancing, parents must understand that.