The pandemic year locked them in quarantines but athletes around the world found resilience to call time on people-pleasing and discovered their moral voice to say NO. Gymnast Simone Biles, tennis star Naomi Osaka and Virat Kohli spoke their minds and defied convention. The year also saw athletes discover the full potential of social media – not just the big names but even the hitherto unknowns from small towns became stars in their own right. There were also some breakthrough performances that will stand the test of time. The hockey captain who reawakened a country’s nostalgic pride, a Mumbai-born New Zealand cricketer returned to his roots to create history, a badminton star who finally learnt how to marry art with commerce, and the man who launched his gold-plated javelin to quench a nation’s thirst.
As the season of endless felicitations, sponsor events, ad shoots, and interviews extended into November, Tokyo Olympics gold medallist Neeraj Chopra‘s window to tick something off his bucket list shrunk. His sister’s wedding was in the third week after which he was to travel abroad for training.
The automobile enthusiast was restless. He keeps track of new launches and can talk about engine horsepower, top speed and acceleration times. Chopra test drove his dream SUV. The butch looks and road presence appealed to him. He was also being pragmatic. His javelins fit only in an SUV.
But the dealer said the four-wheel drive would take over a month to be imported, by which time he would be flying out. Chopra didn’t pull strings to get ahead on the waiting list for delivery.
Quietly he looked for options in the second-hand market and settled for a used sports car.
Driving around Khandra village and Panipat town gave Chopra some rare ‘me time’ after more than three months of whirlwind touring to be feted as India’s first gold medallist in track and field. The who’s who of the country wanted his time. He was unable to step out without being recognised, even if he wore a mask and a cap. There were selfie requests at every step.
He had no time to train or hit the gym. Chopra gained weight and had to cut short his season. To his credit, the 24-year-old didn’t let success go to his head, nor was he at his wit’s end when his life turned into one big public mela.
He consciously kept the trappings of fame at a distance. He retreated to the comfort of his close-knit family and a small circle of friends when his stardom matched that of the big cricket names. His mentions on social media were in millions and his followers grew by lakhs overnight.
Aman Shah has been working closely with Chopra over the past four years and was with him during most of the post-Olympics travel. Shah is part of the team which manages him at JSW Sports. Being in the public eye came at a cost for Chopra. But he took it in his stride, says Shah.
When the attention got a little too much, Chopra needed a little help. Before flights, a request was made to the protocol officer at the airport to allow him an easier passage to the aircraft, away from the common area. But the pilots often gave away who was on board.
“On airplanes, they used to announce ‘we are thrilled to have the Olympic gold medallist on board.’ Not once did I see him get angry with anyone despite people being invasive,” Shah describes.
“When it comes to fans, especially kids, if somebody asks him for a picture, even if there are 10 people around him, including bouncers telling him not to do it, he feels that if somebody is waiting he needs to oblige them. That has not really changed, it is a big part of his personality. He is coming from very little and he knows that all of this could be very fleeting.”
Chopra also made peace with not being able to enjoy the small pleasures of life. He could no longer enter a mall unnoticed. He had to try and slip into some sort of disguise.
“Earlier he could just walk into a mall and shop. Now he would wear a mask and cap and then go. He would still be recognized. He would tell people ‘let us take a picture on the side’ so not many notice,” Shah says.
The javelin star had to wait a while before he could shop. When on a short holiday with the family, he bought shoes in Dubai. One of the pictures he posted on Instagram is of him sitting on the sand dunes during a desert safari with a brand-new pair of basketball sneakers on his feet. Being a sneaker-head, he spent a small fortune.
Before and after his mini-break though, he had to learn to pose before the camera during shoots, act, get comfortable with talking about the medal-winning feat before big gatherings and make small talk at functions.
But he slipped into different roles like it was second nature. For the Cred television commercial, an instant hit, one of Chopra’s request was to give him very short dialogues like ‘ab kya? MBA?’ or ‘360 degree marketing’.
His two gold medals, the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games in 2018, and the Junior World Championship gold two years earlier had given him a brush with fame. The wave of adulation post the Olympics was unprecedented.
Chopra switched off his phone on landing in India. To reach him, one had to go through either Shah or his uncle Bhim Chopra. The two of them had to plan each hour of each day. It would be a while before Chopra was able to return to his train-rest-train schedule.
“His uncle Bhim would take all the calls related to governments, Neeraj didn’t have his phone on. There were at least 100 phone calls every day. It didn’t get to him as he didn’t face a lot of it,” Shah says.
But at times people would get a little pushy. Some of those on the line would insist on talking to Chopra. Once they got to speak to Chopra, they would ask for favours — to put in a word for inter-departmental transfers, a promotion or to give a recommendation for a sports award.
“He was not very comfortable. He would say ‘how can I make these calls.’ It was a little awkward for him,” Shah adds.
He was also mindful not to get dragged into any controversy or be used as a pawn. Around the time he returned the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) dismissed the claim of a coach taking credit for guiding the athlete back in 2015.
Chopra paid the coach a courtesy call when he was in Pune for an army function. But when the coach put out pictures of Chopra’s visit to his home, the star javelin thrower wasn’t amused because he felt like he had been used to prove a point.
मेरी आप सभी से विनती है की मेरे comments को अपने गंदे एजेंडा को आगे बढ़ाने का माध्यम न बनाए। Sports हम सबको एकजूट होकर साथ रहना सिखाता हैं और कमेंट करने से पहले खेल के रूल्स जानना जरूरी होता है 🙏🏽 pic.twitter.com/RLv96FZTd2
— Neeraj Chopra (@Neeraj_chopra1) August 26, 2021
He stayed clear of public spats. Just before the Games, foreign coach Uwe Hohn had said top sports organisations in the country did not do enough to prepare athletes for the Olympics. A day after Hohn’s broadside, two other javelin throwers, nudged by officials, put out statements alleging the German-born coach used to train athletes from other countries when at foreign camps meant for the Indian team. Chopra didn’t get into a mud-slinging game.
When the troll army was going after Pakistan thrower Arshad Nadeem for picking up the Indian’s javelin before the first round in Tokyo, Chopra doused the fire by clarifying that athletes were free to use each other’s equipment during competition. In a video message and via a tweet, Chopra made a strong statement by calling out those who painted a fellow competitor as a villain.
The competitor and friend
His empathy for this era’s most dominant thrower Johannes Vetter, when the German great failed to qualify for the final at the Tokyo Olympics, was a lesson in how to stay grounded.
“Please pass on the message to him that I consider him as a great athlete and when he was leaving the field, I wanted to hug him and make him feel ‘you are the best.’ It’s just that he didn’t have a good day. He is very close to the world record and I hope he sets the world record,” Chopra said speaking at The Indian Express e.Adda.
This was Chopra’s attempt to comfort Vetter, with whom he had shared a car ride before the Olympics while in Europe. Chopra is known to stay in touch once he develops a bond, be it someone he just met or an early mentor.
Jaiveer, or as Chopra calls him ‘Monu bhai saab,’ was his very first coach in Panipat. Everyone knows of the story of the overweight boy who was told by his family to go to the ground to get fit. Jaiveer was the one who gave the unsure youngster his first lessons in the javelin throw.
To date, Jaiveer remains Chopra’s guide and friend. He was one of the first people Chopra called after winning the gold in Tokyo. When Chopra underwent an elbow operation two years ago and his season unravelled, Jaiveer was by his side in the hospital room.
Meanwhile, a childhood friend running an academy near Chopra’s village can bank on him to sponsor a promising young athlete. “He does not forget those who have been there for him. He is the same Neeraj, before and after the medal,” his uncle Bhim says.
Sports writers have plenty of stories of athletes they have known well not returning calls or giving them the cold shoulder once they turn super stars. Chopra is proving to be an exception.
At a packed media interaction just a day after he landed in India, Chopra thanked a journalist who had just finished asking a question. Chopra said he remembered this particular reporter because he was the first to message him ‘congratulations’ when he was named flag-bearer for the 2018 Asian Games.
Another journalist was pleasantly surprised when Chopra forwarded a personal voice note to invite him to this sister’s wedding last month. Within a fortnight of the wedding, Chopra landed at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center in California, USA. Next year he will aim for medals in three major events, the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, and World Athletics Championships.
He is coming off a long cheat phase and having a sweet tooth didn’t help matters. The first aim is to get back to shape.
“I have slowly started training. I had become fat,” Chopra said, while shooting a live Instagram video and replying to questions.
On the breakfast table was a plate of fruits and what looked like some cereal. In the distance was a training track.