Javelin thrower Kishore Kumar Jena had spent a long time at the bottom in the race for World Athletics Championships qualification. But when he booked a spot for himself at the mega event, with a personal best throw of 84.38m, one of the first people to wish him was Neeraj Chopra.
A text message from the reigning Olympic champion in the men’s javelin throw – the first Indian to win an Olympic gold in athletics – was the validation Jena needed to suggest he was now part of the big league.
Since winning India’s second ever individual Olympic gold medal on August 7, 2021, Chopra has been spearheading India’s athletics charge on and off the field.
From being the first active athlete to come out in support of the protesting wrestlers, to giving a pep talk to the Indian women’s Under-19 cricket team ahead of their World Cup final, to reducing fans to tears on meeting them, Chopra has achieved a legendary status previously reserved for the nation’s cricketers.
The biggest impact Chopra has had has been in getting Indian athletes to believe that they can also compete with the best athletes in the world, and even beat them.
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In his discipline, India has five men’s javelin throwers – Chopra, Rohit Yadav, Jena, Shivpal Singh and Sachin Yadav – who have thrown more than 80m in 2023, the most by any country.
It’s not just in javelin where Chopra has had an impact. Before him, Indian athletes would scarcely qualify for high-profile athletics meets outside the country on a regular basis. They would also be content training in India, and rarely train abroad. Since Chopra’s ascendency, there has been a marked shift in the way Indian athletes approach their events.
Athletes like long jumper Murali Sreeshankar and steeplechaser Avinash Sable have regularly participated in Diamond League meets with many others training in Europe and North America.
But Chopra’s biggest impact has been shattering the mental barrier many Indian athletes have had when competing with the elite. Chopra has not only shown them that Indian athletes belong on the global stage, but that they can also dominate and win regularly.
“What Neeraj has achieved has transformed the way Indian athletes think, it has done wonders to our confidence,” Sreeshankar said last year.
After winning gold at Tokyo, Chopra added a World Championship silver and a Diamond League Finals trophy to his kitty. He already had a Commonwealth Games and Asian Games gold medals in the bag. And yet, he remains the boy from Haryana just happy to throw an 800 gram spear and inspire millions of children across India.