There’s one thing common between javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, quarter-miler Hima Das and high jumper Tejaswin Shankar: they’re the best in their art in the country by a mile. The trio has almost come from oblivion and taken athletics by storm.
Chopra and Das’ exploits at the recently concluded Asian Games have just reaffirmed their credentials of being top-drawer athletes. So naturally, recognition followed their laurels, and sponsors their recognition. Just over a week back, Das signed an endorsement deal with German sportswear giant Adidas. According to her manager, at least a dozen sponsorship deals are in the pipeline and a few, including one with a major mobile phone brand, has already been finalised. It’s not everyday that a global brand that is associated with stars like Lionel Messi and Novak Djokovic comes in search of a track and field athlete from India. But there were reasons. At the official signing day, Das beamed as she announced, “Hima Das is now Adidas.”
Chopra is understandably the most sought after track and field athlete from the country. Late last year, he was signed by American sports beverage manufacturer Gatorade, whose parent company is PepsiCo, on a four-year deal. After Kohli’s pullout from Pepsi, Neeraj and star shuttler PV Sindhu are the only Indian sportspersons associated with the beverage company. The 20-year-old Haryana star is also the only Indian track and field athlete to be signed by Nike Global, which brings him home a handsome sum of $50,000-plus per year apart from customised sports apparel.
Tejaswin Shankar cannot sign any sponsorship deals till he takes part in the NCAA circuit. The rules would make him unable to compete if he inks a deal. But it’s only a matter of time. The moment the NCAA champion and national record-holder graduates, he will have sea of sponsorship deals and will have a tough time to choose from.
Such wasn’t the case some time back. Athletes would often lament about lack of sponsors and not being able to manage their training expenses despite reaching a respectable level on the competitive circuit. Big brands jumping in the non-cricket segment is a win-win situation for both the athletes and sponsors. For the company, it’s a smart investment as they don’t have to shell out as much as they would have to rope in, let’s say, a cricketer. For Indian athletes, who are used to managing with limited resources, sponsorship deals are a blessing from above.
But this change of heart, on the sponsors’ part, hasn’t come without a reason. Chopra is on the cusp of breaching the elusive 90-m mark. His consistency has earned him golds at both the Commonwealth and Asian Games this year. His 88.06-m Asiad throw would have earned him a silver at the Rio Games. His consistent performances in the Diamond League, where only the cream of the world’s throwers take part, have established him as a truly world-class athlete.
Das, who burst onto the scene by winning India’s first gold at the Worlds in July, broke the national record twice in as many days as she returned home with a silver medal, clocking an impressive 50.59s. Das would know that to become an Olympic medal contender, she would have to run below the 50s mark. But it’s just early days for her on the quarter mile circuit. As per a national camp coach, she can easily clock sub 50 with a little more focus on speed training. In other words, she is on the cusp of joining the elite cream. And why wouldn’t sponsors not want a potential world-class athlete onboard?
There’s another notable thing about these young athletes: they’re fearless. Although nerves before any big event are natural, but with an increase in the number of competitions and provisions to train overseas, these youngsters have learnt not to get overwhelmed by competitors or competition.
At a recently-held Idea Exchange, Chopra, who trained in solitude at the Kuortane Olympic training centre in Finland ahead of the Asiad, explained how his best throws come at bigger competitions.
It’s a fresh change from the age-old script of Indian athletes performing extremely well at the qualifying events for big events and then fizzling out when it matters most. This fearless and competitive attitude has never been as evident as it it with the current lot. The recently-concluded National Open, an event which a lot of big names skipped, shed light on more young talent. Little-known Haryana quarter-miler Anjali Devi came up with a 51.97s run out of the blue, while 19-year-old Sreeshankar rewrote the long jump national mark with a leap of 8.20. Are the sponsors watching ? Hopefully.
By Andrew Amsan