When he finally heaved the javelin a mighty 88.13m (Olympics gold was 87.58m), Neeraj Chopra and a billion prayers crossed over to the other side with a silver at the World Championships.
The athlete adds the latest medal to an already overflowing but bottomless cup — he is the defending Olympics, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games champion. Although Chopra has withdrawn from CWG games due to an injury, it is easy to forget that he is just 24 years of age.
The conditions at Eugene were not favourable and for once the athlete who likes to finish things off quickly had to dig in for a late rush to the podium. But learning and adapting are trademark Neeraj Chopra just as much as cancelling the noise to focus eagle eyed on training.
He once told me, “Mere haath mein sirf training hai result toh baad mein aata hai aur ismein mai kuch nahi chodoonga. Training kee issi life mein main khush hoon.” (I am trained and I am happy about it. The results always come later)
The photo-ops and felicitations post the Olympics were dizzying, endorsements and cash rewards were like petals being showered and officialdom wanted a pie of the winners even at the expense of derailing coaching for future events.
Silver medallist wrestler Ravi Dahiya gave the world championships a miss saying he wasn’t prepared after being made to run from one event to another. It can be a heady feeling yet no one remembers when Chopra disappeared or when he quietly resurfaced to resume his training in the US.
By remaining unfazed from his goal, Chopra, once again showed how he sets such high standards, even for himself. “I don’t fight to win, I fight for excellence, I fight to get better.” The self-effacing is not act, despite the laurels, this is still him.
What is it about Neeraj Chopra that every step he takes is in the right direction? No controversy has ever surrounded him, and in a country that idolises its cricketers to a fault, he has come out of their shadow to put them in the shade. Is Neeraj Chopra the most consummate personality from the world of sports that India has ever produced for wins and losses alone don’t guarantee a spot on the shelves of posterity?
The athlete more than anything reminds us about the value of goodness — whether it is touching an unknown elder’s feet in Europe or giving encouraging words to Pakistan’s javelin thrower Arshad Nadeem on the sidelines of the World Championships. There is no fuss.
Neeraj Chopra’s personality could not be more contrasting from the man who has dominated Indian sports for more than a decade but where Virat Kohli’s aggression is often jarring, Chopra’s calm demeanour is a sign that you don’t have to be loud to be heard.
What makes Chopra tick can perhaps be answered by visuals from his village after his recent silver where his mother broke out in a folk dance.
The young man from Haryana’s Panipat may have achieved greatest heights but remains grounded and simple, reflected immediately after the Olympics gold when he was visibly uncomfortable with the personal and intrusive questions that some journalists asked. During the spotlight he told me that it was easier for him to train than to attend felicitations.
Chopra’s biggest asset is that he does not chase limelight, but handles it with respect when it chases him. Fulfilling the pressure of a billion fans — especially as a lone man standing and not part of a team is an art, fans are fickle — burning effigies of cricketers is not a thing of the past and just last year hockey player Vandana Katariya’s family was at the receiving end of casteist slurs after India lost in the Olympics semis.
Even now, Chopra probably knows that unlike cricketers, he is remembered only when it is time to fulfil expectations and not during the long winding road when the hard work is unrelenting and relentless. It’s not easy especially when the hype dies down as boxer Lovlina Borgohain’s tweet from the Commonwealth Games venue exposed.
The Tokyo bronze medallist claimed that she was being mentally harassed, something that was ongoing and had already affected her performance at the world championships. It is no secret that in Indian sports, you win despite the system and while private companies have brought professionalism, it is still not all kosher.
Chopra like the only other Olympics gold medallist Abhinav Bindra has done well to stay out of the system and train abroad consistently.
The more Neeraj Chopra wins, the more he gives back to sport by not just encouraging families to allow their children to take up an unheard sport like javelin but by also simplifying the path. Not just that, until now Indians by and large have watched track and field events from the outside.
Winning medals with hearts, is not always a two-way street, the champion he unknowingly aced it. The great Muhammad Ali once said, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” It’s a crown that fits Neeraj Chopra best.