“Bilkul bhai, kaafi accha savaal poocha, thank you. I have been saying that I have won the Olympic gold medal, but my work is not complete,” said Neeraj Chopra in an interaction with fans on the Athletics Federation of India’s Facebook page on Thursday evening. “We have the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games next year... World Championships too, there are Diamond Leagues, and even domestic competitions. We have to plan properly with the coach.”
The question asked was what are his targets now, with a cramped three-year Olympic cycle to contend with in the lead up to Paris.
Cut to a few days back. The venue is Eugene, Oregon. The event is Diamond League. Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson-Herah was there, she ran the 100m in 10.54 seconds. It is, on paper, the second fastest time ever ran by a woman. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Prayce and Shericka Jackson were there too, right behind there. It was another Jamaican 1-2-3, just as we had seen in Tokyo 2020.
Andre de Grasse was there, too. One of the best athletes of the generation, but he had not won an Olympic gold medal coming into Tokyo 2020. He achieved that dream. He is now the best in the world in 200m. You could have forgiven him for taking the foot off the pedal. But he ran the 100m in Eugene and won gold.
And Allyson Felix was there too. In Tokyo, she became the most decorated American in track and field at the Olympics, going past Carl Lewis. What else is there for her to achieve? She stood at the starting line with far younger competitors flanking her. The crowed erupted when her name was read out. After her record-breaking medal haul in an empty stadium without fans, that felt fitting. It was a surreal moment. She ran the 200m, finishing fourth.
These are athletes at various stages of their careers, all have tasted big success at the biggest of events, as indeed at Tokyo this very month. And here they were... on their marks, ready, set, to go again.
“The attention is indeed important,” Neeraj Chopra had said in an interview with The Times of India. “There’s a Diamond League at the end of the month. I had planned to participate in it, but my training stopped completely once I returned from the Olympic Games because of the incessant number of functions.
“I also fell sick. This is why I feel my fitness is not up there now. I can’t compete properly. That’s why I have to skip the event. I had planned to compete in at least two-three events. These things need to change in Indian sport. All other Olympic champions are participating in Diamond Leagues. Their season is continuing. We can’t be satisfied with one gold medal. We need to think at a global level. We need to continuously perform at global events like the Diamond Leagues.”
Chopra, bless his patience, has indeed been busy since his return to India... grand reception at the airport, an interview from a moving car with a reporter chasing him for an exclusive, video conference calls that could mildly be described awkward, numerous in-person felicitations.
He is the toast of the nation... he probably feels toast too.
Ahead of the aforementioned Facebook fan interaction on Thursday, Chopra had to take care of another matter. Something he had seemingly said in jest, resulted in a social media trend. He had to put the matter to rest. There should have been no controversy in the first place, but he had to clarify that his Pakistan counterpart Arshad Nadeem had not done anything wrong or outside the rules in the javelin final at Tokyo 2020.
As if he did not have enough on his plate already, he had a manufactured headache to resolve. From the same TOI interview where he had said something far more important, far more pressing, far more critical, the item that got the most attention was this non-issue. His statement showed the kind of human Chopra is, apart from the elite athlete he obviously has been for a while. But it was just another sideshow in the circus that has followed him around.
It is not just Chopra. Tokyo Olympics silver medallist Ravi Dahiya said that he has to skip the Wrestling World Championship because he has not had enough time on the mat since returning.
“I don’t want to be on the mat unprepared. What’s the point in competing without enough practice? So I have to miss the World Championship because I don’t want to go to the trials without enough practice,” Dahiya told PTI.
He did add that the events are not exactly bothering him. “How do you say ‘no’ to them? They are your own people, who want to show respect and honour you. The only thing is I get tired,” he added.
That’s the thing. At some level, most athletes – pardon the generalisation – would love the attention. Honestly, who doesn’t like validation for the work they do? Which professional doesn’t want their work to be recognised, their success to be cherished?
The likes of Chopra (and the teams around athletes) understand the importance of image management and branding as well. It is important to acknowledge and reciprocate the role played by the system in their success. And this is also not to preach the importance of leaving Chopra or the other Indian medallists alone. We are not there yet. When the nation has two Olympic champions with more than a decade’s gap in between, it is a moment worth celebrating. The athlete is, of course, worth celebrating. They need to know what they have achieved is special. But at what cost? How much should they have to go through before they, hypothetically, start feeling suffocated?
Instead of listening to the most important takeaway from Chopra’s interview, and figuring out a solution for his schedule, the circus around him gets crazier.
Let’s not fail our athletes. Let’s not fail Neeraj Chopra. That medal around his neck shouldn’t have to be this heavy.