The Olympic champion’s ability to throw the javelin has propelled him to superstardom in his home country and helped a generation of Indian athletes to believe
The doors of the arrivals hall opened and life changed forever for Neeraj Chopra. When he walked out into New Delhi airport, Olympic gold medal in hand, he could see the thousands of well-wishers waiting outside the terminal to acclaim their new national hero. It didn’t take long for him to be engulfed.
“The point when I started doing the javelin was a life-changing moment in itself,” he tells AW through an interpreter. “But when I saw the crowds at the airport that day, I thought: ‘I’ve done something’. People started recognising me, wanted to be with me, wanted autographs with me. It has given me the motivation to keep trying to get better and to achieve more.”
He has set himself a high bar. That landmark Tokyo victory in 2021 made Chopra India’s first ever Olympic track and field medallist of any sort, let alone champion. August 7, the date when his throw of 87.58m wrote his name into the annals of history, is now celebrated as National Javelin Day in his home country. Few sportspeople have managed to make such an impression on the consciousness of a nation where cricketers tend to dominate the agenda.
Chopra’s Instagram following of 6.2 million people might still pale in comparison to the numbers commanded by great batsmen such as Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli, but it’s still the kind of attention which the majority of track and field athletes could only dream of – and that the sport needs.
There is a sense of momentum building in India. The country won eight athletics medals at last summer’s Commonwealth Games, adding to Chopra’s world silver from Oregon. Each one of those medallists cited his breakthrough achievements in helping them to believe.
“There has been a lot of change and growth in the sphere of athletics in the country, especially in javelin as a lot of youngsters have taken up the sport, plus a lot of young javelin throwers [including world finalist Rohit Yadav] did very well in the past season,” he says.
“World Athletics also announced recently that India were ranked ninth in the world overall when it comes to men’s field events last year. There is a lot of potential.”
Coming from a country with a population of 1.4 billion people helps, of course, but it’s also important to note that World Athletics’ media monitoring showed the 25-year-old to have been the most written about athlete of 2022, the first time in recent history that Usain Bolt has been overtaken in that particular race.
The endorsements have been plentiful, while the recognition is positive and significant, but it can also be a distraction. That’s why Chopra was to be found spending a substantial chunk of his winter not at his usual training base in Patiala, but at the High Performance Centre in Loughborough.
Thanks to the Indian government funded Target Olympics Podium Scheme (TOPS), he was able to spend two months operating in relative anonymity (there certainly weren’t crowds awaiting his arrival to the UK) and with the space to start laying foundations for another important year ahead.
“I had been to this facility once, last year, and quite liked it,” says the athlete who has also enjoyed long-term support from JSW Sports, a company which helps a number of India’s aspirational sportspeople. “I had a word with my team, and we were all of the opinion that I should train at Loughborough as it offers great facilities. All an athlete needs to focus on is training, which makes it a good option.”