How good is an athlete without competition? What can a player do if it’s all preparation and no play?
Neeraj Chopra’s interaction with the media on Wednesday was supposed to give us a peek into how his Olympic preparations are going but instead it only showed why the Games, if they happen, could be like nothing we have seen before. For an athlete... for a top athlete, this is as off the beaten track as it gets.
The 23-year-old Chopra is one of India’s most promising track and field stars and a genuine Olympic medal prospect in a discipline that the country has not enjoyed consistent success. Yet, he seems more frustrated than focussed ahead of his Olympics debut. It just seemed to simmer over.
The lack of competition and being hunkered down in India due to the coronavirus pandemic is something that virtually every athlete has had to endure over the last year. Indeed, given the state of the country, athletes staying at training centres are among the privileged few who can perhaps feel safe.
But Chopra’s layoff has been longer, and his frustration runs deeper. He was laid low by an elbow injury all through 2019 after a breakthrough 2018 season, where he won the Commonwealth and Asian Games. Then, the pandemic struck in 2020.
“I feel frustrated that I lost the two best years of my career for reasons that I couldn’t control,” Chopra said at a virtual media conference organised by the Sports Authority of India on Wednesday.
“Sometimes I think what are we training for if there is no target. How long to stay patient and be positive? Everyone trains to perform in competition, to play against the best. Without that, there is no point to training,” he added.
Chopra’s disillusionment is understandable. The Asian Games champion and national record holder should be preparing for the upcoming Olympics in full stream. Instead, he is begging for a chance to compete; to get out in the park and give it his all.
“I have not had international competitions for almost two years. [His last international event was at the start of 2020 where he qualified for the Tokyo Olympics with an 87.86m throw]
‘...if we don’t play in competitions, then what is the use of the training? If we are thinking about the Olympic level and winning, then we also need to compete with those athletes.
‘I don’t have an experience of playing in the Olympics, this will be my first time so to prepare I need competition. Last year, I thought I would be able to compete next year, but that is not happening. Even in 2020, some European athletes were able to train abroad but Indians could not. Now in 2021, the other athletes abroad are competing but we have not been able to. Even the best players can’t perform well just with training,” he said, adding that he is lucky to have been able to qualify for the Olympics before the upheaval began.
The authorities have been trying to ensure more competition and overseas exposure for the elite athletes but the dangerous second wave of Covid-19 in India has put a stop to that.
Last month, India’s relay teams were not allowed to travel and compete at Olympic qualifying events in Poland despite being in Europe. Chopra and Co’s planned training-cum-competition tour of Turkey has been suspended due to hard quarantine rules.
The current circumstances are extreme and out of anyone’s control. Chopra understands that. He has even stopped following the news because everywhere he sees stories of people dying because of the coronavirus. “When I think about what is happening in the country, it affects me. Luckily nobody in my immediate family has been affected but I am hearing about the deaths of relatives on the phone,” he said.
That’s a good choice for mental well-being in a time of turmoil. But Chopra’s turmoil is multiplied by the implications of the grim scenario on his personal situation.
With just about two months to go for the Olympics, not only is he untested but also training in conditions not suited to the elite level.
Chopra, who is based at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala, said the weather in India is an added disadvantage. “It is very difficult to train in such heat. Even if you just stand on the ground for five minutes, it gets tough to train. Now it is hot and in June it is going to get much hotter.”
But he has suggested a solution too. “I think there should be an indoor track to train at least in Patiala, which is the base for most of our top athletes. Even the smallest of countries abroad have one. Already the temperature is touching 40 degrees and it will get worse. An indoor track will help us train all year round,” he said.
The athlete also believes that it is the only competition that can prepare him for the big stage and breaching the heralded mark of 90 meters because that’s when he is able to throw his best. Given the current crop of javelin throwers – the best of the lot as Chopra described them – a throw around his personal best of 88.07 - will be the basic requirement.
“In training, I am not able to perform as well as I can in competition. I throw 82-84 metres but beyond that is tough. In competition, the mindset is different and automatically my body and mind are warmed up to give my best,” he said.
The immediate plan is to look at training options in Sweden after his attempts to get to Finland were scuppered. Chopra is also hoping to get some much-needed match practice at the elite Diamond League series in Europe. “Once you are based there you can participate in competitions in Europe. But we have to see about quarantine because I can’t afford to stay in and miss training so close to the Games.”