Neeraj carries champion’s confidence to Paris but pressure will be different: Johnson - Hindustan Times

Neeraj carries champion’s confidence to Paris but pressure will be different: Johnson

ByAvishek Roy
Apr 21, 2024 11:12 PM IST

The US track legend defended his Olympic 400m title and says the javelin ace must deal with the weight of India’s expectations

Defending an Olympic title brings with it a different kind of pressure. When Neeraj Chopra stands on the runway in Paris with javelin in hand he will be expected to deliver nothing less than a second gold medal.

File image of Neeraj Chopra(AFP)
File image of Neeraj Chopra(AFP)

US track legend Michael Johnson knows what it takes to defend an Olympic title. He stormed to a second 400m Olympic title in 2000 Sydney, coming through a tough injury-marred period in the build-up.

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“It is very difficult when you are the defending champion and it comes with its own pressure. Sometimes when an athlete is not expected to win, it’s easier to do than when they are expected to win,” Johnson said on the sidelines of the Laureus World Sports Awards 2024 here.

“He (Chopra) will have the whole of India, a lot of people, wanting him to win. Not all athletes have done it. I was able to do it and it can be done. It comes with an advantage that you know that you can win. You have done it before. You also carry the champion’s confidence. Sometimes it has an effect on your competitors who might think this person is a champion and I am not going to even worry about him. I will focus on silver or third place. So, it works both ways."

Chopra flying high

Going by his performances in the last two years, Chopra has been spurred by his sensational Tokyo Olympics gold. He is also the reigning world champion and has consistently medalled in major meets since his 2021 Olympic high.

Looking back at his own incredible career stacked with four Olympic gold medals and eight world championships gold, Johnson says managing expectations is an important part of an athlete's career.

“Expectations will always weigh on you. It’s just about how you manage it. You have your own expectations, fans have expectations, and the whole country has its expectations. Trying to pretend that it’s not there and doesn’t exist is a mistake. The key is to manage those expectations, especially in the moment when you are preparing to focus on only the things you can control.

“I can look at championships and each one is special because each one had a different journey. I am proud of the fact that I was able to win in each circumstance.”

Post Covid Olympics

He is looking forward to some good performances in the Paris Olympics with the energy of the fans coming back after the Covid-restricted Tokyo Games. “Lot of athletes told me that they missed the energy of the fans in the stadium.

“The thing about the Olympics is that all events are thrilling because the stakes are high. These are your best athletes at their best. They have all trained for this moment. Everybody wants to be the champion but only one will get the gold medal. So, there will be last minute drama. You are going to have athletes trying to show up in Paris not believing they can win gold and they can leave Paris with a gold medal. It’s an amazing story when that happens.

“Then there are athletes who show up as heavy favourites and walk away with silver or nothing. It’s a drama regardless of which event it is.”

Lyles, the icon

There is never shortage of drama when Noah Lyles is on the track. He is being touted as the showman the world of athletics has lacked since Usain Bolt’s retirement. Lyles, who won the treble of 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay at the 2023 Budapest World Championships, is nominated for the ‘Laureus World Sportsman of the Year’ along with Novak Djokovic, Armand Duplantis, Erling Haaland, Lionel Messi and Max Verstappen.

Johnson believes the focus should be on performances and not on individuals. “There are lots of great athletes in the sport. We just really need to stop the idea that athletes need to be a character. We have to tell the competitive stories that we haven’t done. That’s what makes most people watch sports.”

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