The pandemic year locked them in quarantines, but athletes around the world have found the resilience to call out the times to please people and have discovered their moral voice to say NO. Gymnast Simone Biles, tennis star Naomi Osaka and Virat Kohli spoke out and defied convention. The year also saw athletes discover the full potential of social media – not just the big names, but even hitherto small town strangers have become stars in their own right. There were also groundbreaking performances that will stand the test of time. The hockey captain who awakened the nostalgic pride of a country, a New Zealand-born cricketer born in Mumbai returned to his roots to make history, a badminton star who eventually learned to marry art and commerce, and the man who threw his gold-plated javelin to quench a nation’s thirst.
As the season of endless congratulations, sponsored events, commercials shoots and interviews stretched into November, Tokyo Olympics gold medalist Neeraj Chopra’s window to tick something off his bucket list. shrunk. His sister’s wedding was in the third week after which he had to travel abroad for training.
The automobile enthusiast was restless. He keeps track of new launches and can talk about engine power, top speed and acceleration times. Chopra’s test drove his dream SUV. He liked the butch look and the presence on the road. He was also pragmatic. Its javelins only fit in an SUV.
But the dealership said the four-wheel drive would take more than a month to import, by which time it would fly. Chopra didn’t pull any strings to be on the delivery waiting list.
Quietly, he searched the used market for options and settled for a used sports car.
Driving around the village of Khandra and the town of Panipat gave Chopra a rare ‘time for me’ after more than three months of whirlwind tours to be celebrated as India’s first gold medalist in athletics. The who’s who of the country wanted their time. He couldn’t go out without being recognized, even though he was wearing a mask and cap. There were selfie requests every step of the way.
He didn’t have time to train or go to the gym. Chopra gained weight and had to cut his season short. To his credit, the 24-year-old didn’t let success get to his head, and he wasn’t at the end of his rope when his life turned into a big public mela.
He consciously kept the trappings of stardom at bay. He retreated to the comfort of his close family and a small circle of friends when his fame matched that of the big names in cricket. His social media mentions run into the millions and his followers have grown by hundreds of thousands of dollars overnight.
Life not so banal
Aman Shah has worked closely with Chopra for the past four years and was with him on most post-Olympic trips. Shah is part of the team that manages it at JSW Sports. Being in the public eye came at a cost to Chopra. But he took it in his stride, Shah said.
When the attention got a little too much, Chopra needed a little help. Before flights, a request was made to the airport protocol officer to allow him easier passage to the plane, away from the common area. But pilots often revealed who was on board.
âOn planes, they used to say ‘we are delighted to have the Olympic gold medalist on board.’ I haven’t seen him once get angry with anyone despite the fact that people are pushy, âShah describes.
âAs for the fans, especially the kids, if someone asks him for a photo, even though there are 10 people around him, including bouncers telling him not to, he thinks that if someone is waiting, he has to oblige him. It hasn’t really changed, it’s a big part of his personality. He comes from very little and he knows it could all be very fleeting.
Chopra has also made peace with not being able to enjoy life’s small pleasures. He could no longer walk into a mall without being noticed. He had to try to slip into some sort of disguise.
âPreviously, he could just walk into a mall and go shopping. Now he would wear a mask and a cap and then go away. He would still be recognized. He would say to people ‘let’s take a photo from the side’ so that not many people will notice, âShah said.
The javelin star had to wait a while before he could go shopping. On a short family vacation, he bought shoes in Dubai. One of the photos he posted on Instagram shows him sitting on the sand dunes on a desert safari with a brand new pair of sneakers on his feet. Being a sneaker enthusiast, he spent a small fortune.
Before and after his mini-break, however, he had to learn to pose for the camera during shoots, to act, to familiarize himself with the medal-winning feat before large gatherings, and to gossip at receptions.
But he slipped into different roles like it was second nature. For the Cred TV commercial, an instant hit, one of Chopra’s requests was to give her 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 gold at the World Junior Championships two years earlier had brought him glory. The wave of adulation after the Olympics was unprecedented.
Chopra turned off his phone when he landed in India. To reach it, one had to go either through Shah or through his uncle Bhim Chopra. The two had to plan every hour of every day. It will be some time before Chopra can get back to his train-rest-train schedule.
âHis uncle Bhim took all government-related calls, Neeraj didn’t have his phone on. There were at least 100 phone calls every day. It didn’t touch him because he didn’t face a lot of things, âShah says.
But sometimes people would get a bit arrogant. Some people online would insist on talking to Chopra. Once they got a chance to speak with Chopra, they asked him for favors – to put a word on interdepartmental transfers, a promotion or to recommend a sports award.
âHe wasn’t very comfortable. He was like “how can I make these calls”. It was a little embarrassing for him, âadds Shah.
He was also careful not to get caught up in controversy or be used as a pawn. When he returned, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) rejected a request for a coach to take credit for guiding the athlete in 2015.
Chopra paid the coach a courtesy visit while in Pune for a military function. But when the coach posted photos of Chopra’s visit to his home, the star javelin thrower was not amused because he felt like he had been used to prove a point.
He stayed away from public gaiters. Just before the Games, foreign coach Uwe Hohn said the country’s top sports organizations were not doing enough to prepare athletes for the Olympics. A day after Hohn’s broadside, two more javelin throwers, urged on by officials, released statements alleging that the German-born coach was coaching athletes from other countries at foreign camps for the Indian team. Chopra did not get into a mud game.
As the troll army attacked Pakistani pitcher Arshad Nadeem for picking up the Indian’s javelin ahead of the first round in Tokyo, Chopra put out the fire, saying the athletes were free to use the equipment. on the other during the competition. In a video message and via a tweet, Chopra made a strong statement calling out those who described another competitor as a villain.
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– Neeraj Chopra (@ Neeraj_chopra1) August 26, 2021
The competitor and friend
His empathy for the most dominant pitcher of that era, Johannes Vetter, when the great German failed to advance to the Tokyo Olympics final, was a lesson in how to stay grounded.
âPlease let him know that I consider him a great athlete and when he left the pitch I wanted to give him a hug and make him feel like you are the best. It’s just that he didn’t have a good day. He’s very close to the world record and I hope he sets the world record, “Chopra told Indian Express e.Adda.
It was Chopra’s attempt to comfort Vetter, with whom he shared a car ride before the Olympics while in Europe. Chopra is known to stay in touch once he has developed a bond, whether it’s someone he just met or one of his first mentors.
Jaiveer, or as Chopra calls him âMonu bhai saabâ, was his very first trainer at Panipat. Everyone knows the story of the overweight boy who was told by his family to go to the floor to get back in shape. It was Jaiveer who gave the uncertain youngster his first lessons in the javelin throw.
To this day, Jaiveer remains Chopra’s guide and friend. He was one of the first people called by Chopra after winning gold in Tokyo. When Chopra had elbow surgery two years ago and her season ended, Jaiveer was by her side in the hospital room.
Meanwhile, a childhood friend who runs an academy near the village of Chopra can count on him to sponsor a promising young athlete. âHe doesn’t forget those who were there for him. It’s the same Neeraj, before and after the medal, âsays his uncle Bhim.
Sports writers have a lot of stories of athletes they’ve known well not answering calls or giving them a cold shoulder once they’ve become super stars. Chopra turns out to be an exception.
In a crowded media interaction just a day after arriving in India, Chopra thanked a reporter who had just finished asking a question. Chopra said he remembered this particular reporter because he was the first to send him a ‘congratulations’ message when he was named the 2018 Asian Games flag bearer.
Another reporter was pleasantly surprised when Chopra delivered a personal voice note inviting her to this sister’s wedding last month. Less than a fortnight after the wedding, Chopra landed at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center in California, United States. Next year, he will be aiming for medals in three major events, the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games and the World Track and Field Championships.
He’s coming out of a long period of cheating and having a sweet tooth didn’t help matters. The first goal is to get back in shape.
âI slowly started to train. I had gotten fat, âChopra said, while filming a live Instagram video and answering questions.
On the breakfast table was a plate of fruit and what looked like cereal. In the distance was a training track.