‘Competition in India has increased, many juniors are doing well. Things are changing,’ says Asian Games gold medalist Neeraj Chopra

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New Delhi | Published: September 23, 2018 1:32:14 AM

Neeraj Chopra hopes to breach the 90-m barrier next year, says ‘consistent’ performance has led international athletes to take him seriously, talks about avoiding pressure, negativity from social media and switching to non-vegetarian food.

Neeraj Chopra with Senior Correspondent Andrew Amsan in The Indian Express newsroom (Image: Abhinav Saha)

ANDREW AMSAN: You are visiting home after a long time…

Most of the championships and tournaments are outside the country, sometimes in Europe or elsewhere. There is not much time left to visit home. We have training in between as well. But a busy schedule ensures results. I have come home now and will dedicate all my time to it.

ANDREW AMSAN: You are in the Army. Are you allowed to have such long hair?

When I put on my uniform, I get a hair cut. When I am training or playing, I wear my hair how I want. In Haryana many people would comment on my hairstyle but now I don’t visit my village very often. Sometimes my parents say, ‘It is too hot outside, why don’t you get your hair cut?’. I tell them I will do it. You have to keep saying that… I like to wear my hair long. I will get them cut in the winter, for a new style.

In my sport, long hair has no benefit but there is no harm either. Sometimes when I am training or jumping then it becomes a problem. I put on a cap then.

MIHIR VASAVDA: I was talking to your former coach recently, and when I asked him what you should do next, he said, ‘First thing, he should chop off his hair’.

(Laughing) He likes to joke. Most coaches tell me the same thing. I will get them cut soon, many people have urged me to do so now.

SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Javelin is not a common sport. At your village, what kind of reactions do you get when you walk around with your javelin?

One time I was returning from training and had my javelins with me. I was waiting at the bus stop in my village. Two boys came up to me and asked if they could lift the javelin. It weighs around 800 grams. They said it is so light, we can throw it far. So I was like ‘okay, throw’. They tried. One of them got hit on his shoulder and the other on his head. Then they shut up and understood that it was not their cup of tea. I told them to get some rest and to eat more.

SANDEEP DWIVEDI: What happens when you travel and have to carry the javelins in airplanes and buses?

They are heavy, we usually travel with six to seven. A pipe-like bag is used to carry them. Sometimes, there are issues on domestic flights, but it’s easier on international ones. Sometimes at airports they ask us, ‘What’s in your bag?’. We tell them it’s a javelin and they let us go. Also, for me, the weight is not much of a problem because the javelin is something I worship, so it can never be a burden for me. And, if it does bother us (laughing), we look at pole vaulters and make peace with our situation. Their poles are much bigger than our javelins, and those guys are much thinner than us. If they can do it, so can we.

SANDEEP DWIVEDI: Cricketers are known to have a special spot in their heart for a certain bat or ball. Do you have a special javelin, one that has been with you for long?

Yes, I do have a favourite javelin. It has a yellow grip. I really like that one. But recently, at a competition, I tried to throw the javelin which belonged to a contestant from another country. I threw it up to 88 metres. So, I can use any javelin.

SANDEEP SINGH: Usually children in India are more interested in hockey or cricket. How did you take up javelin?

In my village, wrestling and kabaddi are the popular sports. Some pick up cricket just for fun. When I first went to the stadium for a fitness programme, I saw my seniors throw the javelin. I tried it and really enjoyed it. Since then I started practising regularly. That was in 2011.

DEEPTIMAN TIWARY: Before you took up javelin, what was your favourite sport?

In the village, sometimes I would play volleyball. But mostly it was wrestling and kabaddi. However, I would get hurt playing those. I tried running too, but I was a bit fat. So it was easier to take up javelin.

GAURAV BHATT: Social media has become a platform for players to interact with fans, but at times it also leads to negativity and controversies. How do you deal with it?

I usually avoid using social media, but at times it becomes almost necessary. Like when I have to inform people about a tournament. Also, when I win a medal or if I am taking part in a big tournament, I feel like connecting with people through social media. I try to post stuff related to the game. I avoid doing advertisements, though.

DAKSH PANWAR: After the Asian Games, on Instagram, and several other social media websites, people made you a symbol of friendship between India and Pakistan. What were you thinking? Did it occur to you that ‘I’m shaking hands with a Pakistani’ or that a Chinese person is standing behind me?

No. The truth is I never thought like that, even though I was aware of their nationalities. I saw the comments on social media. People were lauding me for doing a good job. But sportsmen don’t think on such lines. Sportsmanship is natural.

ANDREW AMSAN: We have heard that when you were younger, you once almost burnt down your house. Also, you threw your bag in the well because you didn’t want to study…

It was a cloth bag stitched by my grandmother. I went up to the village well and threw my bag in it, and then went off to play. In the meantime, my grandmother’s neighbour asked her why she was so happy. She said it was her grandson’s first day at school. The neighbour then told her that I never went to school and was playing instead. I got a good beating at home.

My parents and relatives worked in the fields and would bring grass for the bulls and store it in a corner. One day, during winter, I was feeling quite cold and decided to light a small fire with some of the grass. Later, I left the place. The fire kept building up and the entire shed was gutted.

Such things happen when you are a child. At times, I would hit the cows and bulls for fun and tie a knot around them with a string. My father was fed up with me. He asked me once if I could tie a knot, and while I was showing him, I hit the cow with the knot. My father slapped me.

DAKSH PANWAR: Is there scope to make a sport like javelin more popular in India?

Definitely. There is a lot of talent among Indian youth and they have a lot of speed as well. They just need to be made more aware about the sport, especially in the villages. Many youngsters are interested in the sport but do not know how to go about things. With more awareness, it can definitely be made more popular. These days facilities have also improved a lot.

TUSHAR BHADURI: At the Asian Games and even at the Commonwealth Games, most of the winners were from Haryana. Is there a reason for it?

In Haryana, there is an atmosphere for sports. Sports has been as important as eating food. Most people enjoy sports and participate in it. Even parents encourage their children to take up some sport.

MIHIR VASAVDA: You were a vegetarian. Since you began to travel abroad, you switched to eating non-vegetarian food. Do you like it and does it have an impact on your game and health?

It was difficult the first time. I couldn’t even swallow the food. It was too chewy and tasteless. But in Europe, you mostly get non-vegetarian food and so it was a necessity. People say it has protein etc… For me it’s just about getting something to eat at the end of the day after my practice sessions. If I don’t eat well, there is a higher risk of getting injured.

In my village, when we ate eggs, my mother would tell me to keep the utensils outside. There are many women back home who don’t like non-vegetarian food.

RAVISH TIWARI: What kind of training does a javelin thrower require?

You need speed, strength and technical training. Flexibility is also important. But technique is the most important aspect. Indian athletes have strength but their technique is poor.

ANDREW AMSAN: You have gained 10 kg since March. How did you go about your workouts?

Earlier, I was working out with Garry sir (Garry Calvert, former coach who passed away in July). He made me run a lot. People would ask if I was planning on running a marathon. The food in Bengaluru was very different from the North Indian fare. There was sambhar, rice etc. I couldn’t eat much of that. So, I lost a lot of weight. Now, I am back at 90 kg.

SANDEEP DWIVEDI: In javelin, most players want to breach the 90-metre barrier. Does that play on your mind too? Have you crossed the barrier during training?

No, my best in training is 84 metres. That was before the Commonwealth Games. I perform better in competitions. I am short by 2 metres. During the Asian Games, I felt my throw might touch 90 metres but that didn’t happen. Something was wrong… maybe my technique. There is the World Championship next year. I will work hard to do well there.

SANDEEP DWIVEDI: While you say you perform better in competitions, in the past we have seen that Indian athletes do not always fare well at big competitions.

At bigger competitions, the crowds etc give me a boost. Earlier, athletes would choke. Now, they are doing well even under pressure. Like (athlete) Hima Das performed really well recently. Tejaswin Shankar (high jump) has done really well at the World Championship in the US. We have some excellent athletes now. The results at the Asian Games were very good. The competition in India has increased. There are many juniors who are doing very well. So, things are changing and we should have a better medals tally at the next Olympics.

RAVISH TIWARI: What are some of the aspects of the game that you need to work on?

I need to improve my strength. The machines used by international athletes and their exercise regimes are very different from ours. Fitness makes a huge difference. We are working on it.

TUSHAR BHADURI: Has the outlook of international athletes towards you changed?

They will have to take me seriously now. Earlier, in the Diamond League, I was at the third position. Olympic champion Thomas Roller beat me by a very small margin. He takes me seriously now. When he saw me throw a foul, I could see that he felt that my throw was good even if it wasn’t correct. In the beginning, I hadn’t played much and I didn’t even know anyone. They hadn’t seen me throw. My biggest strength is that my performance has been consistent. That helps.

MIHIR VASAVDA: The past one-and-a-half years have been good for you. Do you think about the future? There will be more expectations and pressure.

I try to focus on my training. Two-three days before the Asian Games, I deactivated my Instagram account because I didn’t want to read any negative posts. I try to avoid pressure as much as I can.

ANDREW AMSAN: At the Olympics, family members are not allowed in the stands. Will that make a difference to your game?

My relatives don’t come for my events. Sometimes they come for the nationals but I try not to look at them. If I see a family member during an event, I lose focus. It feels like I am sitting at home. Even if someone comes to watch, I ask them to sit at a spot where I can’t see them.

MIHIR VASAVDA: You once mentioned that as a child you would be fascinated with planes and now that you travel in them, it feels surreal. Can you tell us about it?

Earlier, when I would hear the sound of a plane, I would run to the terrace to see it. I would also call out to my friends to join me. That was a different time. It has taken me a lot of hard work and sacrifice to get here. It has all paid off now.

SANDEEP SINGH: What is your assessment of the performance of the upcoming javelin athletes in India?

They are doing very well in the under-18 and under-16 categories. Their world ranking in their age group is first or second. There is one boy in particular who is very good. He got a gold at an Asian competition in the under-18 section. I haven’t met them yet because I was training abroad till now. I will try to meet them and do what I can.

RAVISH TIWARI: Did you meet the Prime Minister after the Asian Games?

I didn’t meet him then because I had other competitions. I had met him after the Commonwealth Games. He asked me my name. When I had come back after the under-16 tournament earlier, he had asked me if I was happy. I said yes.

ANDREW AMSAN: In your village not many people know of javelin. They call it ‘bhaala’. Also, your father recently bought a smartphone to stay in touch with you.

I didn’t know about (javelin) either when I started… My uncle gave the phone to my father so that he can use WhatsApp. We have a family WhatsApp group called ‘Humara parivaar, humari taaqat’. We have a joint family. There are 17 members.

My father tries to stay away from technology. Earlier, when I would travel abroad, he would keep calling me on my India number. He would say why do you keep your phone switched off. I had to explain to him that the number doesn’t work when I am abroad.

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