Neeraj Chopra hits javelin home turf tonight, celeb duties on the back burner

Neeraj Chopra will be seen in action at Paavo Nurmi Games in Finland tonight for first competition after Olympic gold.

Ahead of the Padma Awards in March, Neeraj Chopra doodled a logo with his name. Chopra's more than a javelin thrower now -- he's a brand   -  jonathan selvaraj

If you see any new advertisements featuring Olympic gold medallist Neeraj Chopra over the next few weeks, chances are they were all shot in Delhi in the last week of March. That’s when he went through a veritable blitz of video shoots. Javelin’s leading man was wrapping up as many threads as he could in the unfamiliar but inescapable world of stardom before immersing himself back into training.

The results of that training will be on display on Tuesday evening when Chopra marks his return to competition at the Paavo Nurmi Games in Finland. At Turku’s athletics stadium, surrounded by a world-class field, Chopra will clap his hands over his head to rev up the spectators, then sprint down the runway and throw the javelin, flinging himself off his feet in trademark style. The crowd will cheer as the javelin flies skyward. In that moment, Chopra will feel at home.

 

It will be nearly 10 months since he last competed, in the final of the Tokyo Olympics. Life has changed unimaginably for him since then. He has had to adjust to a new normal - TV appearances, ad shoots, and glamorous modelling gigs. It’s a sweet lifestyle, but also something that’s not for him.

The consensus is that Chopra, gifted with natural movie star looks and an easy sense of humour, is made for the camera. The 24-year-old, though, will tell you otherwise. “That life is not something that I enjoy. It’s a new experience and that is always interesting but we aren’t professionals in this thing. Hum to desi bande hain (I’m a village guy). If I had to choose, I would choose to train,” he says.

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The desi banda, however, adapted to this new avatar. In Delhi, when he came to receive the Padma Shri award, he knew exactly what to ask the two designers who had come to fit him for the clothes he would wear at the ceremony. "In 2018, I remember what a big event it was when I got my first India blazer for the Commonwealth Games. Now, there are different clothes, different shoes for an award function and for the dinner that comes after."

His coach Klaus Bartonietz, a gruff septugenarian who grew up in East Germany, still can't fathom the number of looks Chopra goes through. "You look like a pretty girl with all your dresses," he observed.

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Neeraj Chopra in his coach, Klaus Bartonietz's room.   -  jonathan selvaraj

 

Chopra remembers how ill at ease he was at first with the glow up. He remembers his first shoot as an intensely nerve-racking experience. “I didn’t have any training. No classes. I’d gone to the Olympics. Now, suddenly I’m in front of a camera, and everyone on the set is waiting for me to do something. They wanted me to give some reactions and I just felt really embarrassed because everyone was watching. I must have shot for at least seven or eight hours that first day. Eventually, I thought to myself I need to figure out what to do or they will keep me in the studio forever.”

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You would think Chopra would be used to having people gawking at him. After all, he routinely has the eyes of stadium spectators watching his every move. “I can’t explain why that’s different,” he says. “In the stadium, I get a boost from people watching. I want more people to watch. In the studio, I don’t want anyone to look at me.”

But Chopra knows it’s a change in his life that isn’t going away anytime soon. “I know I’m not a professional in this line. But I also know I can’t walk away from it. I know when I’m 50, no one’s going to want to watch me. I know that some people comment, ‘Aab se ye ad karne lag gaya (he’s just doing ads).’ They don’t get it that every athlete does it. I’ve seen the other side. I’ve been in a village. I’ve seen the problems. I have to make whatever time I have count,” he says.

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If he had to choose, he’d happily choose to sweat on the field under the sun, away from the spotlight. “I love training. It’s the greatest feeling in the world. Your body is absolutely sore. Bura haal hota hai (you get really beat up). It’s anything but easy. But once you are done, you feel like you have accomplished something. It feels like you have improved a bit each time you come out of the gym or ground,” he says.

Just the act of training had become a bit of a rarity after the Tokyo high. There is just one of him and everyone wants a piece. “The toughest part about being Olympic champion is you are Olympic champion. People want you to remain an Olympic champion, but they also want you to be with them. They think once you become an Olympic champion, you will always be on top. But you can’t be. It’s hard to improve. You have to work hard for that,” he says.

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After the Olympic gold, everything I said got extra weight. I've got to be extra careful when I speak.   -  jonathan selvaraj

Chopra isn’t the first Olympic medallist to discover that public embrace of a sports star can be smothering. “You think that once you give people what they want, you can return to training and then they will just let you be. But it doesn’t happen. I’ve said this multiple times, but people get offended when I say it, I think,” he says.

RELATED: Neeraj Chopra to compete at Paavo Nurmi Games in his first event since Olympics  

So, Chopra has become careful with what he says. “After the Olympic gold, people started to think that if I say something it’s got extra weight. So, they start expecting you to say things. It’s not like I suddenly have all the answers. I‘ve only ever trained to be an athlete. You can ask me things about training and competition and I’ll have all the answers. I’ve never trained to answer some of these questions. I am the same guy, with the same brain. Yes, after meeting a lot of people, my mind has broadened and I’m more aware, but I’m the same guy as I was before the Olympics.”

It isn’t as if he is afraid of voicing his opinion. However, he wants to be sure of what he’s talking about before he speaks. “Sometimes people ask, ‘why isn’t Neeraj speaking on this issue or the other!’ I have to be careful because if I do speak on it, it will end up becoming a national issue. Usually, when I don’t speak, it is because I don’t understand the point 100 per cent. If I don’t understand and speak and then people ask me a follow-up question, will I be able to answer that?”

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He is willing to speak as long as the topic has some connection to sport. For instance, on the subject of a section of the media reporting that Pakistani athlete Arshad Nadeem tried to hide Chopra’s javelin at the Olympics. Chopra nipped those stories in the bud. “I know what the rule is. I know that any javelin is a part of the field. I was able to speak because I knew the rules. If someone cross-questioned me, I knew exactly why it was a non-issue.”

On other matters he’s a lot more circumspect. “If you ask me to share thoughts on if we need to have more coaches or conduct a diamond league, or any other high-level competition in India, I’ll gladly talk about it. I hope I can make a difference in athletics. But if I talk about politics without being sure, I’ll get into trouble from 10 different angles without even knowing why.”

When you consider the potential minefield of opinions he has to traverse, you perhaps understand why Chopra just wants to train. “It’s a lot easier to train when you are outside India. When I’m in India, even if I do my best, there are always people to meet, programmes to attend. More than finding the time to train, it’s difficult to find the mentality to train. Some time back, I had come from Mumbai after a programme. The coach (Bartonietz) wanted me to train, but I was uncertain. When I’m abroad, I don’t have those thoughts in my head. I’m in the training zone, ruthless. Bas karna hai (I just have to do it).”

Chopra has gone from being excited about a single India blazer to now wearing multiple options for individual ceremonies.   -  jonathan selvaraj

 

Chopra first went to the training base in California at the end of last year, where he got back into shape, losing the 15kg that he’d put on after the Olympics. He then travelled to the Turkish city of Gloria, which is the base from which he’s planning competitions right now.

He is aware that he’ll be taking part in his first competition several weeks after his top competitors got their season underway. “The only competition I wanted to go to after the Olympics was the Diamond League. Honestly, because I was doing so many events in India, I ended up falling sick. The other issue was I didn’t even have a visa to go to Europe. Also, because of the Covid-19 situation, I couldn’t even get a visa at short notice. When people ask why I wasn’t training or competing, the real reason was that this wasn’t in my control at all. I don’t think I’ve missed any major competition. I’ve had a strong off season, and am ready for my season.”

 

 

 

The prime reason why Chopra isn’t worried about his season is because he is aware of the risk of competing too frequently. “There are four major competitions I want to peak at this year. I want to do well at the World Championships, the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games (now postponed) and the Diamond League finals. There’s not much time between them. As you get more experienced, you learn you have to pace yourself. It doesn’t feel normal to go so long without a competition but there’s no point worrying. Last year (Johannes) Vetter did nine competitions before the Olympics. He was regularly throwing over 90 metres in them. But by the time of the Olympics, he was getting tired because all that travel from one competition to the other really kills the body,” he shares.

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That being said, Chopra is itching to compete. “This is the first time since 2019, when I was injured, that I’ve gone so long without throwing. Back then I returned to competition in South Africa and started throwing well at the ground, but the mind was still not sure if I was 100 per cent fit. This time I am ready.”

Chopra knows he might peak right away. “People think that because I'm Olympic champion, I'll always win. I hope I do well, but maybe I’ll do just 78m at first,” he says. His eventual target though is to cross the 90m mark. “It’s just a number, yes, but it’s more than that. If I get there, I’ll become one of the world’s top throwers. It’s a barrier for me. Some people have a 10 second barrier in sprints. 90m is a great barrier for a javelin thrower,” he says.

"The toughest part about being an Olympic champion- is everyone wants you to remain Olympic champion. But they also want you to be with them."   -  jonathan selvaraj

 

It seems strange that Chopra, with an Olympic gold, feels he has to cross 90m to be counted among the world’s top throwers’. But that’s how he perceives it. “When I came back from the Olympics, Abhinav Bindra (India’s first individual Olympics gold medallist) told me, ‘Welcome to the club.’ That was a club of Olympic gold medallists. But the 90 m club is very exclusive, too. I want to be a part of that club.”

He wasn’t always this way. “Until 2018, I was always chasing medals. I wanted every award I could get. But things started to change around the Doha Diamond League. In that event, I set a national record (87.43m), but finished 4. I didn’t even think that would happen. But all the medallists went above 90m,” he says. “That’s when I realised my sport is something where I look beyond medals. In some sports such as wrestling and boxing, you can compete to the level of your opponent. There’s a difference in how much effort you put against a weaker opponent and a stronger one. But In our event, you can’t say, ‘I need to throw only this much.’ You throw each time with all your ability.”

For Chopra, the goal this year is simply to keep improving. “My vision is just that the distance increases a little each day. People say, ‘You have won the Olympics, now what do you need to do!’ And the answer is to get a little more each time I throw. Just a little more distance. My vision is simple, but also difficult. I just want to increase my distance. The medal is a different matter. Our sport is weird that way. You can do whatever you like and if the other person does a little bit better, you don’t get the gold. You might not even get a medal. But you can keep improving.” 

As Chopra heads towards his first competition, the fancy clothes, shoes, award ceremonies and arclights will recede in his memory. His mindset has started adapting and obsessing about the javelin once more.  “Once I started training again, I started dreaming about javelin, too. I’ll dream that I’m throwing the javelin in all odd places. In my dreams I’m throwing the javelin really far,” he says. It’s a zone he instinctively enters. “Once I get into the training zone. I don’t have to change anything. It’s not like I have to switch anything up. And when I go especially to a competition, it automatically sets in. When you see the environment and the athletes, you start hyping yourself up. Even when you think you don’t need to take pressure, you start feeling it. But it’s fine. You can’t just chill and get into it casually. This is where it’s fun for me,” he says.

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