Defending title at Olympics never easy, but I am in best space right now: Neeraj Chopra
In the 21st edition of the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, Neeraj Chopra spoke to HT’s national sports editor Ashish Magotra in a freewheeling conversation not just about the javelin throw and India but also the wider athletics galaxy of which he is now one of the brightest stars
Olympic champion. World champion. Two-time Asian Games champion. These are not just mere titles. Instead, these accomplishments are linked to great expectations, and perhaps the toughest thing in sport is to live up to them. At every competition, there are so many variables in play– the pressure, the weather, the opponents, the venue, fitness– but somehow Neeraj Chopra has waded through all to become someone who delivers at the world level without fail. And this is far, far harder than it seems.
Since winning the historic gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in August 2021, Neeraj has competed in 14 events, and his worst finish is second. In nine competitions, he finished on top of the podium. Such consistency and class put him in a very elite league, among the very best in the world. But despite all this success, he has managed to stay focused and keep things simple.
In the 21st edition of the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, Neeraj spoke to HT’s national sports editor, Ashish Magotra, in a freewheeling conversation not just about the javelin throw and India but also the wider athletics galaxy of which he is now one of the brightest stars.
“It is a different feeling,” says Neeraj about his competition mode. “I don’t need to search for inspiration as soon as I step into the stadium. There are 70,000-80,000 people in there. You feel like you are in a different universe. There are the expectations of all those watching. There are expectations of the people of India, and we have our own expectations. It is difficult to turn up each time, but maybe because I have the support of so many or perhaps it is my self-belief, but I have been able to perform each time.”
At the recent Asian Games, where he defended his title, India’s Kishore Jena put the 25-year-old under immense pressure, but that only allowed us to get a glimpse of peak Neeraj.
“At the Asian Games, Kishore Jena threw a good distance, and I felt I needed to better than that,” says Neeraj. “It became a competitive environment. I was happy for him, but because this was an individual event, I wanted to do well as well. And until the last javelin is thrown, I always believe I can go one better.”
Neeraj’s belief and ability to perform better is a direct result of the hard yards he puts in training. But training in sports isn’t a straight road. It does not give always you instant results. So how does one counter that? What is the right approach?
“I believe patience is a very big thing in sports because whenever athletes start in sport, everyone wants results,” says Neeraj. “But sport doesn’t work like that. It could take 5-6 years or even 8-10 years to show good results. So patience is vital, and that is a state of mind I try to maintain. We already know when the Olympics are going to happen ...so to get ready for it, I need to have a plan in place like what do I need to be in peak state for that, and how do I get there.”
The one thing that stands out in every conversation with Neeraj is the clarity with which he approaches things. The world of sport is ever-changing, and there is also some new technology or technique that is becoming popular, but Neeraj believes in keeping things simple.
“Sport, essentially, is simple,” says Neeraj. “My goal is to throw the javelin as far as possible. It is a simple enough goal, but to achieve that, a lot of other things need to align. But no matter what you do, no matter how much talk there is about pressure and expectations and training, at the end of the day, you have to get the distance. The main job is to throw that javelin as far as possible, he says.
“These days, you have a lot of things — advancements in training techniques, food and more. There are new and complicated things in sports, but if we talk about athletes earlier, like Jan Zelezny, who holds the javelin WR with a 98.48m throw, they had simple trainings and it worked. So I try to not overcomplicate things. I try to focus on the simple things,” says Neeraj.
As the 2023 season came to an end, athletes around the world didn’t have the luxury of putting their feet up and relaxing. Defending the Olympic crown is never easy. But for now, Neeraj seems completely unperturbed.
“When I think about Paris 2024, only one thing comes to mind: whatever hard work I have put in up to this point, whatever I have learnt, I want to put that to best use there,” says Neeraj. “Defending a title is never easy at the Olympic level. I feel I am in the best space right now, at the best age. So, I want to try and avoid injuries. I know it will be tough, but it is a joy. It is a challenge and one that I accept,” he adds.
“I think I won’t need to change too much. When I went to Tokyo, everyone expected a medal. But this will not be the first time. The expectations people have or what I have from myself, I have managed to come true to them. Now, it is important to live in the moment. When I will be in the stadium in Paris, it will be time to go out there and show what I’m all about,” says Neeraj.
The one thing that has brought Neeraj almost as much joy as winning is watching India making steady strides in the world of sport. There was a time when it was just him, but now the others are making their mark as well.
“This is not just about one thing,” says Neeraj. “The Olympics started the process, but I think that SAI (Sports Authority of India), the government, the federations… everyone is becoming aware. The government is focussing on sport a lot. The important thing is that we are now starting to realise that we can achieve big things. The other big change is that when Indian athletes compete these days, their mental level has changed. They are increasingly becoming fearless. The self-belief is growing, and I think this is a quality that will help India achieve great things in the future.”