Columns | Playtime With Boria Majumdar
The Ninety-Metre Question
Neeraj Chopra claims he will settle it once and for all this year
10 Mar, 2023
Neeraj Chopra at the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, US, July 23, 2022 (Photo: AFP)
IT IS NOT EASY being Neeraj Chopra. To do the things he does. To win consecutive medals on the world stage and yet feel the same hunger when he gets ready for the next competition. To be the polestar can’t be easy and yet he has conducted himself with utmost maturity and presided over a revolution of sorts winning medals at every event he has participated in.
What works for Neeraj, or has worked so far? How does he keep himself rooted despite all the adulation around him? How is he dealing with the mantle of India’s new sporting superstar? Can he break the 90-metre mark this season?
I had the privilege of hosting Neeraj at the Revsportz Trailblazers Conclave on March 5 when he joined us from South Africa via video link. And the moment I asked him the 90m question, it was the Neeraj on the march.
“Is saal yeh 90m wala saval khatam kar denge. Maine bahut baar yeh saval suna hai aur mujhe lagta hai ki kuch samay mein yeh saval khatam ho jayga (This year I’ll put an end to this 90m question. I’ve heard it many times and I think it’ll be over soon),” he said with a chuckle.
It was confidence. Not overconfidence. A silent determination, knowing full well what he is saying and what he is capable of. Clearly, he is confident of breaking the 90m barrier and said so openly.
“Main koi bhi competition mein Olympic Champion ban ke nahi khelta hoon. I always play as Neeraj, just another athlete. Never do I approach a competition thinking I am Neeraj, Olympic gold medallist. All I do is give my 100 per cent and prepare the best I can,” said Chopra when asked how he has readied himself mentally. “Pressure to hai. Rahega bhi. But what is important is that the sport is now attracting attention in India. People are following every single competition. They are getting to know more about javelin and as a result more and more people will now play the sport,” said Neeraj.
When Adille Sumariwalla asked him what more should be done for things to get better, Neeraj came up with a well-thought-out roadmap. “First and foremost, we must organise more competitions in India where we get the world’s best. The more our own athletes get an opportunity to compete with or against the world’s best, the faster will we improve. It is not enough to have one Neeraj. We need more athletes to do well on the world stage and the way to do it is to get the world’s best to India. It is always that we travel out and train outside the country. The moment global athletes come to India and compete, this thing will change,” he argued.
It can be argued that 2022 was considerably more difficult for him in comparison to 2021. In Tokyo he was a contender. More for a medal than the gold. India would have been happy if he had made the podium and few would have hoped for the gold. Post-Tokyo, things were dramatically different. On the one hand, people couldn’t have enough of him and wanted to feed him all kinds of things and, on the other, they wanted him to win every event he participated in. He was the boy next door and the elite athlete all moulded into one. He had to inaugurate every conclave and every gala and yet couldn’t miss training for then there could be criticism that success had gone to his head. He had it all and yet was being challenged every single day for more. India couldn’t have enough of Neeraj and yet did not know how to let him be and train in peace.
Post-Tokyo, things were dramatically different. On the one hand, people couldn’t have enough of him and wanted to feed him all kinds of things and, on the other, they wanted him to win every event he participated in. He was the boy next door and the elite athlete all moulded into one. He had it all and yet was being challenged every single day for more. India couldn’t have enough of Neeraj and yet did not know how to let him be and train in peace
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For our own conclave as well, it was key that we had Neeraj. We wanted to hear him and celebrate him. Ask him what needed to be done. Ask what he said to the U-19 Indian World Cup winning women’s team. He is now a cult figure and yet he is the boy next door. That’s what makes him a very special athlete.
For a 24-year-old, it can’t be easy. All of us in the media want our exclusives and yet want to see him train with single-minded focus. To carve out a balance was his biggest challenge and that’s where Neeraj has stood out. He fulfilled the obligations of being Neeraj for weeks and months and then managed to switch off completely. While we did see the occasional post on social media, his team, which is so very critical to success in elite sport, made sure he could just focus on training.
Abhinav Bindra, who was also present at the Revsportz Conclave, has often spoken about how difficult it was to deal with the post-Beijing euphoria. He had it all at 26 and there was nothing left for him to strive for, he argued. For Neeraj, however, depression was never an issue. When I asked him this question, here’s what he said: “If you see Usain Bolt or Carl Lewis or athletes in their league you will see it is all about repeat success. You can’t be satisfied with one Olympic gold. If you can win in Paris and then maybe in Los Angeles, then you can call yourself a great and that’s what drives me. I want to do more for my country and will not rest easy,” he said. And in saying so he remains humble. And rooted.
Yes, he hasn’t thrown 90m yet. It has become an obsession of sorts with him by his own admission. More so with us in India. And maybe that’s why he said what he said. It’s time to finish the 90m debate once and for all. He knows he isn’t there yet despite winning all that there is to win. He stills wants a World Championship gold and maybe another in Paris 2024. And with Neeraj, one thing is certain. There will never be any dearth of effort. Be it in dealing with the global media or in getting ready for competition, he will always prepare the best to give himself the best chance. India finally has an elite athlete who is well and truly a role model. By his own admission, however, he isn’t anything more than Neeraj Chopra, an athlete who loves to compete and enjoys doing so. Success hasn’t changed him and that perhaps is the most important reason behind his success. The fact that his javelin has encouraged many more to take up the sport and also the fact that we have started to believe that we can win in athletics on the global stage are the real legacy of Neeraj Chopra. And knowing him, he will want to add to his legacy in 2023 and 2024. The more he does, the better it is for India.
About The Author
Boria Majumdar is a sport journalist and the author of, among other titles, Eleven Gods and a Billion Indians. He is a contributor to Open
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