There’s a famous phrase often used for sportspersons: Form is temporary but class is permanent. Tweak it a bit and you will get a fair idea about the state of mind of India’s ‘golden boy’ Neeraj Chopra. For the reigning Olympics, CWG and Asian Games champion, adulation and appreciation are ‘temporary’ but the ever-improving performances and medals are ‘permanent’. To put it in his own words, Neeraj has embarked on a sporting journey to become the country’s greatest-ever Olympic athlete. He is already one of the greatest.
“Agar aage medal nahi aaya, to yehi log neeche maarenge deke (If the medal doesn’t come in future, the same people will bring you down and criticise),” Neeraj quipped. The ace javelin thrower, who will receive his Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna award from President Ram Nath Kovind at the Rashtrapati Bhawan on Saturday, added: “This looks strange sometimes that even if I put all my hard work and efforts and the medal doesn’t come, then the same set of people (who are praising you now) will start saying that ‘he lost focus and got into other (off-field) things.”
Neeraj’s comments came at the Times Now Summit 2021 here, where he was joined by Indian men’s hockey team’s talismanic goalkeeper, P R Sreejesh, for a session themed ‘Future of Indian Sports’. Sreejesh was one of India’s heroes at the Tokyo Games, where the country claimed its first-ever Olympic medal in hockey after a hiatus of 41 years. Sreejesh has also been named as one of the recipients of this year’s Khel Ratna, along with his teammate and captain Manpreet Singh.
Sreejesh also advised Neeraj to focus on his game and not to lose sleep over fellow countrymen’s expectations of medals from him. The 33-year-old veteran goalie was responding to a question addressed to Neeraj, asking about his wedding plans. “Let him focus and be Neeraj. And not just Paris (Olympics) 2024 but beyond. He has won an Olympic gold at a young age and that’s exceptional. People keep praising him, but that way the athlete also loses his focus. He has a long career ahead. I would advise him to enjoy his game. He will get married, even at the age of 40,” Sreejesh added. Neeraj, on his part, stated: “My focus is not on marriage but the Paris Games.”
Neeraj also spelt out his target leading up to Paris 2024, with the CWG, Asian Games, World Championships and Diamond Leagues scheduled for next year. “I want to breach the 90m-mark. It can be 92m as well. We are focusing on that part during our training sessions. I have an Olympic gold and now I want to achieve 90m, so that’s the target.”
The two fondly recalled their breakfast meeting post Tokyo with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his official residence and said they were both touched by his warmth and energy. Neeraj said he will treat PM Modi with a home-made ‘choorma’ dish cooked by his mother. “PM sir offered me choorma. I’ll treat him with the choorma of my house to let people know about the real recipe of the dish,” he said. Sreejesh added: “The best moment for me was the video call made by the PM to us in Tokyo after we lost the semifinal (against Belgium). That was truly inspirational. Everyone praises the winner, but here was our PM sir calling up despite our defeat.”
Both Neeraj and Sreejesh recalled interesting anecdotes from their Olympic campaign. First up was Sreejesh: “The coach (Graham Reid) made every squad member stand on a chair and told us to close our eyes. He said ‘Imagine you are receiving the medal and the award. Just imagine that you have made the nation proud’. It was an evening before our bronze-medal playoff against Germany which we won (5-4). It was quite a motivating pep talk.”