Target Tokyo
Sports Illustrated India|December 2018

Still A Month Shy Of Turning 21, Indian Athletics’ Poster Boy Neeraj Chopra Is Setting His Sights On A Medal On The Biggest Stage Of Them All: The 2020 Olympics In Tokyo.

Tanmoy Mookherjee

WITH about an hour to go for her scheduled bout, wrestler Vinesh Phogat had decided to pop over to the Carrara Stadium with high jumper Tejaswin Shankar, to see compatriot Neeraj Chopra demolish the field in the men’s javelin final with a (then) season’s best of 86.47m to claim India’s first ever gold medal in the throwing event in Commonwealth Games history. India had finished a respectable third in the overall medal standings, aided by a new wave of Indian athletes who have been brandishing their camaraderie all over social media. The landscape of sports in India has undergone a paradigm shift in recent years, with interest in sports other than cricket rising thanks to a ‘boom’ in franchise-based “leagues,” but more so due to the rise of sportspersons from various disciplines.

Chopra is one such athlete, who in the two years since setting a Junior World Record has become the poster boy of Indian athletics, and whose on-field achievements leading to sponsorship deals with corporate giants is ensuring more talents like him coming from India’s hinterlands don’t go unnoticed. There’s a certain nonchalance in people from Haryana, most noticeably amongst athletes coming from the northern region of India. Take, for instance, Virender Sehwag, the former cricketer who minces no words in his often-hilarious tweets. Then there is Sushil Kumar, the only multiple individual Olympic medal winner from India, who can have an audience in splits while narrating stories from his youth. At a press conference after winning one of his first gold medals at a senior event, Neeraj Chopra also oozed similar confidence, and much like his illustrious peers, a raw simplicity in articulating his answers.

Zor laga ke phekna tha, toh phek diya,” he’d said in Bhubaneswar after winning gold at the 2017 Asian Athletics Championships, which loosely translates to “I had to throw really hard, so I did.” His throw on that occasion was an Asian record at 85.23m, which he had summoned in his sixth and last attempt of the evening.

Chopra has since gone on to win gold medals at this year’s Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, held in Gold Coast and Jakarta respectively, bettering his own national record four times this year alone, pitting him at the top of his powers after a successful 2018. Still a month shy of turning 21, ranked No. 6 in the world, Chopra is setting his sights on a medal at the biggest stage of them all: the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

For someone who will be appearing in his first Summer Games, Chopra is very matter of fact in how he deals with pressure. “People have expectations because they believe in you,” Chopra told SportS IlluStrated IndIa while training at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala. “It feels great to be supported by so many people, so I try not to turn that belief into pressure. So far, I have managed to do well and have got great support from everybody. People expected me to do well in the Commonwealth and Asian Games, and said that there were definite gold medals in there, but I tried not to turn this into pressure for myself. I just tried to translate all the hard work I put in training into my performances, and live up to the faith that the people of my country have shown in me. I try to use this faith positively and motivate myself to keep doing better.” These are pretty level-headed words from someone who until a few years ago hadn’t even thrown a javelin.

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