Javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra etched his name in history by becoming the first Indian track and field athlete to clinch a gold medal at the Olympics. The 23-year-old from Haryana also became only the second Indian after shooter Abhinav Bindra to win an individual gold for the country at the quadrennial showpiece event.
Something peculiar has been happening with Neeraj’s popularity ever since he created history in Tokyo on August 7. Before his historic feat, he only had 1.4 lakh followers on Instagram, but now he is one the most-followed sportspersons on the photo-sharing platform, with around 44 lakh followers.
According to research consultancy firm YouGov Sport, Neeraj was the 'most mentioned' athlete globally on Instagram during the Tokyo Olympics by recording over 29 lakh mentions.
In an exclusive chat with Manorama, the soft-spoken youngster talks about living with fame and money after winning on the biggest stage and says these can never overshadow his quest for excellence in the sport. Excerpts:
You have become a household name in India with just one throw. Now several stadiums are named after you. How are you dealing with the newfound fame?
I have not been able to resume training since Tokyo 2020 as I have been attending felicitation programmes across the country. I have decided that I will not be taking part in any more competitions this season. It is a great feeling to know that an entire country loves you. Huge crowds gather around me wherever I go. I am slowly adapting and adjusting to this new reality. I have always led a simple life and I will not let fame get into my head.
The improvement in your performance has been steady and consistent. Before your success at the Tokyo Olympics, you had won gold at the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games in 2018. What is your next target?
My immediate goal is to breach the 90m mark. 2022 is an important year for me as I will be attending three mega events including the World Championships. I need to perform well to retain the gold I won at the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games. I had five years at my disposal to prepare for the Tokyo Olympics, but the next Games in Paris is less than three years away. I need to improve on my personal best and keep injuries at bay. Retaining a title is tougher than winning it.
In the Olympics final, you started celebrating even before your second throw had landed. Were you confident that the throw would fetch you the gold when the javelin had left your hand?
When you release the javelin, you know how much distance it is going to cover. It is a skill that can be mastered through years of training. The second throw in the final was almost perfect. The run-up, position of the javelin and the angle of release… everything fell into place. I was hoping to achieve a new personal best with that throw. That did not happen, but I’m more than happy that it was enough for me to earn an Olympic gold.
There are stories of you being a naughty kid. Are they true?
Yes, I was a restless kid. I had a lots of friends at my native Khandra village. We used to have a lot of fun.