At the recently held e.Adda, Olympic gold medallist Neeraj Chopra and bronze medal-winning wrestler Bajrang Punia spoke on preparing in the time of the pandemic, on life after their medals and what needs to be done to support emerging athletes
On the excitement over the Olympics and the challenge of the pandemic
Bajrang Punia: We have been receiving a lot of love and respect after winning medals for the country. It has continued for over a month now, but that also means we have more responsibility, and we need to do more for the country. People came to the airport (to greet us) because they love us and support us. When we saw Sushil bhai (wrestler Sushil Kumar) being honoured at the airport in 2008, we had hoped that one day, people would do the same for us. That also motivated us to get an Olympic medal for the country. It was difficult for everyone to go to the Olympics this year. The rules and regulations were new for everyone. We thought the extra one year that we got because the Olympics were postponed would help us prepare better and we kept a positive attitude. We had to keep ourselves safe from infection and prepare.
Neeraj Chopra: Players (who did not win), too, had put in a lot of hard work. They should have also been thanked because they too played for the country. I think this year we got maximum medals in the Olympics and Paralympics. (In javelin) We have two gold medals, one silver, one bronze — a total of four medals. Javelin has also become popular in India. Our flag is reaching world level in javelin throw. It feels really nice.
On how their life has changed after the Olympics
Chopra: Earlier we could go anywhere, sit on the roadside and eat something… that is less now. Nowadays, due to Covid-19 we have to wear masks, but one day, people recognised me at Mumbai airport even though I had a mask on. It was good for us that so many people followed the Olympics this time. Now, people recognise us. Our performance was seen by everyone and the youth who want to join sports will also be inspired.
On going in for the win
Punia: When we go for a bout, we don’t think we will win by 8-0 or 10-0. When we start the bout, we just think we have to do our best. The score doesn’t matter, we have to focus on winning the bout, which will get us the medal — whether it is by 8-0, 4-4 or 10-0. We have to do our best.
Chopra: Just two days before the bout Bajrang bhai and I were at the gym. Bajrang bhai was wearing a sauna suit and running to reduce weight. He got a knee injury while wrestling in Russia but he kept saying, ‘this is the Olympics, I am not even thinking of the injury’. He had a plaster on his knee and wanted to give his best. When we talk to each other and see that spirit, it is very motivating.
On performing despite an injury
Punia: The doctor had said you are responsible if you play because your injury can become worse and you might need surgery. With the tape that was put on, my movement was restricted. In the last bout, I told the doctor I don’t want to put the tape on so he said put the kneecap instead. I said if I don’t win a medal now, even if it breaks, it doesn’t matter…. An Olympic medal comes first.
Chopra: In Haryana, we have a saying, Ke karegi tayari jab ladegi jidd aari, meaning sometimes our preparation may not be as good, but it’s about winning on the final day with one’s will power. We did it without any fear.
Punia: We had been preparing. Even if we could not train in the last 15-20 days, it didn’t matter.
On making sacrifices and never having seen a film in a theatre
Punia: I have never been inside a cinema hall, but I haven’t left any film on TV. I wanted to win an Olympic medal and then do other things. To win something, we have to lose something. Even now, I haven’t gone to a theatre to watch a movie. During those three hours, we can rest, do training, so we think about the time.
On learning javelin in a place that has no culture of the sport
Chopra: There is a network problem in our village, so YouTube wouldn’t work but I saved videos on my phone. I trained with my heart. It was a new sport and I didn’t know what lay ahead. I understood what javelin is. I’m still learning and perfecting it. I wanted to train well and give it my 100%. The result might come later because it is a physical and technical sport and we reach that level gradually… We are still not perfect. We are still improving. I think till the end of our careers we will be learning.
Punia: Coaches, too, are learning. There is no age to learn. It takes a lifetime.
Chopra: Coaches also learn from each athlete they work with.
On what can be done for emerging athletes
Chopra: I’m lucky because when I first went there (JSW’s Inspire Institute of Sport), I got help. Most athletes don’t. They go to the stadium, no one knows what the facilities are, so even talented people find it hard to continue due to lack of facilities and guidance. Many people are from middle-class families or poor homes. Most come from villages, so they should get facilities of this level. We need good coaches and supporting staff who can guide us.
Katrina Kaif, Actor
Neeraj, your performance at the Olympics and what you have achieved, is an inspiration not just for the whole country, but also a personal inspiration for someone like me, who invests a lot of time in fitness. To see how you have pushed yourself, trained, and what you have achieved, it’s really inspiring. Bajrang, I saw your training videos and felt very emotional seeing them. I have not seen physical training like that in India. One can see the amount of effort and hard work you’ve put into it. You both have inspired the whole country.
Chopra: It feels nice when someone of her stature acknowledges our hard work.
Punia: When people see how hard we work, and they share their blessings with us, it motivates us to work harder and foray ahead. It’s good to see people pushing and rooting for us.
Johannes Vetter, German javelin thrower
Mr Chopra, how does it feel to be an Olympic champion? I look forward to competing with you and against you in the next season.
Chopra: This has got to be the best message for me. I had wished to speak with Vetter after the Olympics. I had seen him, but then I couldn’t make myself go and speak with him. He is a world class athlete who had worked his way to such a level, but for him to not even score in the top eight was quite disheartening. He was close to setting a world record and didn’t even get into a best eight-slot, so I didn’t feel that it was the right time to speak to him. It was not his day. He is a great athlete, I wanted to hug him and make him believe that he is the best. I hope he makes a world record soon… When we went to Finland, we had gone in the same car. He was number one at that time. We talked a lot, about our families, our countries, I learned a lot about Germany.
Irfan Pathan, Former Indian Cricketer
You’ve reached such heights at the beginning of your career. How do you continue the momentum? How do you deal with controversies that surround our sports stars?
Neeraj: Many people used my name and spread a lot of lies. They didn’t know the rules. But I was sure about the truth, and the rules, so I spoke about it. As for early fame,I have a long way to go in my career with my team. I have many other competitions to take part in and do much more such as getting back to my fitness and give results.
Vinod Rai, Former Comptroller and Auditor General of India
Neeraj, when you held the javelin, what was going on in your mind? Bajrang, you had an injury in your right knee. How did you face that challenge?
Chopra: When we are standing for the run-up, everything is blank. The only thing on our mind is to give it our 100%. I would have done thousands and lakhs of throws But at the run-up we just think of giving our maximum.
Punia: In wrestling, many players play with injuries. The game teaches us a lot. Neeraj also came back after an injury. My injury was bad. During the Olympics, every athlete wants to win a medal for the country. I thought that after this if I need surgery, it is not a big deal. When we are on the mat we need to forget those things, otherwise we can’t perform. Your support staff matters, how they motivate you matters. We thought the injury can go to hell, we have to perform.
Anirudh Chaudhry, Former BCCI Treasurer
With your medal, there is an interest among young children in javelin. How do we hone their talent so that we can hope for medals in 2025? Also, will easy access to sports psychology in terms of nutrition impact the growth of developing athletes?
Chopra: In rural India we have a lot of natural talent. Many kids have what is called a ‘fast arm’. We throw stones with natural ease. Similarly, in javelin, we have to throw things, mixed with technique and body strength. We have that talent in India which can be used in javelin, cricket, and even baseball, which is still not very prevalent in India. We have academies that train youngsters in cricket, but sadly we don’t have any for javelin. We are trying and looking for senior athletes who can train in javelin and start something. It’s quite technical, so they need guidance. I am just happy that people now recognise javelin, and I would like to be able to guide people who want a future in javelin.
Jayesh Ranjan, Principal Secretary, Industries and Commerce (I&C) and Information technology (IT), Telangana government
You must have dealt with various sports associations, like the one in your state, and then international ones.We have them in our country too but what more can be done?
Chopra: There are many empty grounds all over, we need coaches over there. We need more competitions.We need opportunities to perform. We, at times, are not able to show our range, as there are fewer opportunities. You can keep increasing our facilities — from stadiums to equipment, to javelins — and many kids in our country will join in.
Nikita Rawat, Head, Marketing and Communication, Steadfast Nutrition
What is the importance of nutrition and what is the message that you have for the youth of the country in terms of sports nutrition?
Chopra: Nutrition plays a key role in sports. Imagine, if we train properly and then go eat tikki-chholey, then what’s the point. We face a lot of problems when we travel abroad to play. We don’t get food which we like or are familiar with, we largely get boiled food. We end up adding ketchup in rice to make it palatable. An athlete’s body needs specific nutrition, and when we get swayed by taste, we compromise on nutrition and our performance. Young athletes need to embrace nutrition to play better.
Sanjiv Navangul, Managing Director, and CEO, Bharat Serums & vaccines
My friend Abhinav Bindra speaks a lot about mental fitness along with the physical one. You both were looking so relaxed when you entered your respective match-winning bouts.
Chopra: Great training contributes to our confidence. Our body needs to be in control. Sometimes because of overtraining in the off-season, we feel the body is tight. I was listening to music the previous night and was just playing the scenario in my head. I kept thinking that this is the day that I have worked so hard for.
Zarine Khan, Co-Founder, The Hindu Zone
How has the attitude of the family, people, and society changed towards you? Also, as an athlete, how easy or difficult is it for someone with only their talent to take them forward, to become an international star?
Neeraj: A lot of talent goes to waste due to the lack of equipment, stadiums and coaching. If we have these things under control, the level of sports will go up in this country.
Punia: Well, the love and affection that we have received after coming back, we have never seen it before in our lives. Even small kids come to us and get their pictures clicked with us, or when they tell us that they watched my wrestling or that they saw Neeraj’s throw, it’s quite a nice feeling.
Mohammad Kaif, Former Indian cricketer
When we display aggression while playing cricket, people think we are fighting with our opponents. Off the ground we share our life stories and befriend them. Bajrang, you play a contact sport, you come off as a lot more aggressive. What’s your message for the people who are watching you?
Punia: Recently this issue of Neeraj and this Pakistani player came up. Let’s assume that when we are competing on the field, we are enemies. Yes, we have to defeat them. But when we come off the ground, we are friendly, we don’t discriminate. As a wrestler, we have to deal with close contact. When you are off the mat, those feelings are different. We talk, we sit together and joke as friends.
Chopra: This time, there was this quote in the Olympics, ‘Stronger together’. I believe that everyone comes to compete and win. We have to give our 100 per cent, irrespective of the fact that our own brother is competing against us. We live together in the games village, eat together. It’s a feeling of a village, just like my own village, where everyone lives together. But in the stadium, we compete.
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Eminent guests who participated in the e.Adda include Mridu Dalmia, Trustee, Dalmia Group Holdings; Vivek Jain, MD, DCW; Sandip Sen, Lead Director, Litmus World; Harsh Goenka, Chairman, RPG Enterprises; Yoginder Alagh, Vice Chairperson, Sardar Patel Institute of Economic and Social Research; Meher Pudumjee, Chairperson, Thermax; Arvind Paranjpye, Director, Nehru Planetarium; Paroma Roy Chowdhury, Chief Communications and Public Affairs Officer, Dream Sports; Ajit Shriram, Joint Managing Director, DCM Shriram; Atul Choksey, Chairman, Apcotex Industries; Rajendra Kasliwal, Board Member, Jai Vakeel Foundation; Sriram Narayanan, Managing Director, Meghraj Capital; Veena Sikri, Founding Trustee and Convener, South Asia Women’s Network (SWAN); Uttara Singh, Director, The Shriram Millennium School; Ayaz Memon, Columnist; Anu Malik, Indian Music Composer