Forbes India Person of the Year 2022: Neeraj Chopra is just getting started
Forbes India Person of the Year 2022: Neeraj Chopra is just getting started
After his gold-winning exploits at the Tokyo Olympics, Neeraj Chopra had an equally phenomenal run in 2022, winning the elite Diamond League and a medal at the World Championships But, more importantly, he has given Indian athletes a seat at the table
Kathakali has been a journalist for a decade and a half, working previously with The Telegraph and Times of India. An MA in political science and a Chevening Fellow, she writes on various themes--the business of sports, pop culture, startups, innovation--and co-produces the video series, From the Field. She is also part of the desk, editing, rewriting and putting the print edition to bed. Kathakali is a sports nut and collects autographs as a hobby. She enjoys travelling and music, and you'll often find her humming completely out of tune.
If 2021 turned Neeraj Chopra into a national hero with his throw of 87.58 m at the Tokyo Games, this year, he’s only picked up from where he left off.
Image: Madhu Kapparath; Styling: Yatan Ahluwalia; Hair: Atul Sharma; Makeup: Sakshi Verma; Athleisure wear by Under Armour; Sports leather bag by Three Sixty; Casual watch by GUESS
We are shooting with Neeraj Chopra in Delhi, and the studio’s all set up. The backdrop has been unfurled, the lights adjusted, flashes tested, while Chopra, attired in a blue ensemble, is perched on a stool as hairdressers fix his floppy mop that was hanging out of the cap he was wearing backwards when he came in. The photographer and the stylist, meanwhile, are running a mini-conference last minute to decide whether a scarlet trunk, kept out of the frame so far, would add an edge to the aesthetics. Chopra listens for a bit, then chimes in: “De do bhai, ‘airport look’ ho jayega [Give it, brother, it will become an ‘airport look’].”
While the guffaws that follow prove he can land a joke as well as a javelin, it’s no surprise that, with his elevation to stardom, the reigning Olympic champion is all too familiar with paparazzi-speak for snapping celebrities outside airports. But it’s also equally fitting that the poster boy for Indian athletics uses a turn of phrase that embodies a journey, for few sporting careers in recent times have taken a flight as glorious as his: From a podgy kid in Haryana’s Khandra village to India’s first individual Olympic gold-medallist in athletics (and the second overall after shooter Abhinav Bindra). And that’s not it. If 2021 turned Chopra into a national hero with his throw of 87.58 m at the Tokyo Games, this year, he’s only picked up from where he left off. In July, he won a silver at the World Athletics Championships, becoming only the second Indian after long jumper Anju Bobby George to medal at the prestigious Games; later in the year, he became the only Indian to win the marquee Diamond League, an annual series of elite track and field competitions. At 25—a number that’s easy to forget given his colossal achievements—Chopra has given Indian athletics a voice and heft on the world stage. If you ask him, though, Chopra isn’t counting the medals. “I didn’t take up javelin to notch a certain number of victories. I took up the sport for the joy of it. I love throwing the javelin, I am addicted to the training sessions,” he says. When he was 12 and weighed 80 kg, uncle Surender sent Chopra to the Shivaji Stadium in Panipat, about half an hour away from home, to work out and get fit. Chopra didn’t enjoy running, but of all the other sports that were being played there, the javelin caught his eye—for the way it would glide in the air and travel far. “Ek alag sa apnapan laga (I felt a kinship). It was at that very moment I knew I wanted to take up the sport. I didn’t even think about winning the nationals, forget the Olympics,” says Chopra. “I just wanted to throw the javelin beautifully.” In his early days, Chopra found inspiration in Jaiveer Choudhary, who would also throw at the Panipat stadium. In fact, he still falls back on him for advice at times. But javelin being a relatively obscure discipline during his growing-up years, Chopra didn’t have a lot of role models to look up to. Back then, national record holder Anil Singh, also from his home state, was the first Indian to breach the 80-m mark. Chopra took it up as his benchmark. When he was 14, Chopra shifted to the Tau Devi Lal Sports Complex in Panchkula that housed one of the few synthetic tracks in the region, and trained with Naseem Ahmad. “His ability to grasp lessons was faster than the other kids I trained. What the others would learn in a year, Neeraj would pick up in half the time,” says Ahmad. But what also stood out was that even outside training hours Chopra was immersed into the sport, browsing YouTube on his mobile in his spare time to watch videos of international athletes. “Jan Železný,” says Chopra. “A triple Olympic gold-medallist, and one of the best throwers of the modern era. I would watch a lot of his videos and I wanted to be like him.”Even when he moved from Panchkula to NIS Patiala and later hotfooted between cities and countries for training, javelin continued to remain his obsession, as friend and high jumper Tejaswin Shankar, who sporadically trained with him during their formative years, testifies. “He thinks javelin, breathes javelin, walks javelin. If you talk to him about anything else, he will tie that down to javelin. His focus is so strong that it’s almost infectious. When you are around him, you want to be like him and train with the high intensity as he does,” says Shankar, who won a bronze at the recent Commonwealth Games. The relentless pursuit began to throw up results around 2016, beginning with the South Asian Games in Guwahati, where Chopra won the gold with a throw of 82.23 m, missing the 83-m Olympic qualification threshold by a whisker. Later that year, he returned with a gold in the World Under-20 Championships in Bydogszcz, Poland, throwing 86.48 m that not only earned him the world record, but also recognition. Among those taking note was German biomechanics expert Klaus Bartonietz, who would eventually go on to become his coach. The U20 tournament in Poland was a few days past the qualification date for the Olympics, so Chopra couldn’t travel to Rio de Janeiro for the year’s Games. But the distance he recorded there was over a metre further than the 85.38 m that Keshorn Walcott, the Olympic bronze medallist that year, had thrown. “That’s when I knew I could achieve something,” says Chopra.
Big Match Player
Ask Chopra about his biggest achievement, and he doesn’t have second thoughts about picking the Olympic gold. Not just for himself, but because, he says, that’s what the country needed. “When I was young,” he says, “I would hear senior athletes say that they wouldn’t be able to match the international level. There used to be a mental barrier. That has been broken. That’s why an Olympic gold in athletics was much needed.” What’s even more significant is that Chopra won the gold in his first-ever Olympic appearance, a feat that even his guru, the Czech thrower Železný, couldn’t manage. “Most Olympics first-timers tend to get a little overwhelmed by the moment. But not Neeraj,” says Manisha Malhotra, the head of sports excellence and scouting for JSW Sports, the sports arm of the steel conglomerate that spotted him during a junior national tournament in 2015 and has been supporting him since through training, recovery and exposure to competitions. “His coach later told me that even his warm-up throws were great. And we all saw that: He qualified on his first throw in his first Olympics. One of Neeraj’s biggest qualities as a sportsperson is to perform when it matters. He rises to the occasion.” To paraphrase tennis legend Billie Jean King, Chopra turns pressure into privilege. Consider his come-from-behind second-place finish in the final round of the World Championships, where the eventual champion Anderson Peters crossed the 90-m mark with his first two throws, heavyweights Jakub Vadlejch and Julian Webber hit 86+ in at least one of their throws, while Chopra fouled in his first and reached a modest 82.39 m with his second. It’s only with his fourth throw of 88.13 m that he overtook the field.“No, I wasn’t nervous when Peters got his first two throws in the 90s, and I couldn’t get anywhere near my personal best,” says Chopra. “It only helped me focus more. Till now, pressure hasn’t had an adverse impact on my performance. I’ve only done well under pressure because I don’t think about the result, I just try to do my best.” Bartonietz, his current coach, confirms that Chopra doesn’t overthink, or let his nerves run amok. Even under pressure, he’s quietly confident. “Neeraj isn’t anxious, or superstitious, and neither over- or under-confident. It comes from knowing how well you have trained. If you prepare well for an exam, would you be scared?” he asks. Bartonietz adds that Chopra is “realistic”, which means he never carries his previous successes into a new tournament. “He doesn’t go into a tournament thinking he is the Olympic champion. The past is actually the past for him.” Being circumspect also means Chopra knows not all his throws will be world-beating. “Sometimes your body feels a little off, and your throw is weaker, and that’s okay,” Chopra says. “My target remains to throw the best that I can on a day.”Which is why he isn’t much concerned about conquering Fort 90, or the 90-m mark that most top javelin throwers, including some of his closest competitors like Johannes Vetter and Vadlejch, have breached. “Koi baat nahi ji, at least medals toh aaya,” Chopra demurs. “I am not putting myself under any pressure to throw 90 m. The number isn’t important, what is important is how well I handle pressure in top tournaments. It’s no good to throw 90 m once, and then slack; I’d rather prefer consistent good throws.” Chopra’s consistency was on display in 2022, a year in which he recorded the top six throws of his lifetime, with 89.94 m at the Stockholm Diamond League being his personal best. In fact, seven of his top 10 throws have come in the year. “His goals are only to go bigger and bigger. He doesn’t want to be known as the one-medal wonder,” says Mustafa Ghouse, the CEO of JSW Sports. “If you talk to him, it’s always about the next medal, and the next. He was very conscious about following up Tokyo with equally epic performances.” Ghouse adds that throwers usually tend to mature in their late 20s. “At 25, Neeraj already has medals at the Olympics, the World Championships, and the Diamond League,” he says. “He has another two Olympics in him. Can you imagine where he will be when he hits his peak?”One of Chopra’s astounding abilities, say people who know him closely, is to understand his body and read its signals well, which helps him take decisions keeping the bigger picture in mind. “On his schedule last year was a tournament in England and we were all ready to go when, three-four days prior, he told us he wasn’t feeling great and would rather spend three weeks training than competing,” says Malhotra. “It worked, because he ended up much healthier through the season. We’ve learnt to trust that feeling now.” It also helps that Chopra has been physically gifted from a young age. In the battery of tests conducted at Panchkula’s Tau Devi Lal Sports Complex to assess physiological parameters, he outclassed other kids. He continues to maintain excellent athletic parameters even now. Says Bartonietz, “Neeraj is a great athlete, who just happens to specialise in javelin. He would have excelled even if he took up any other sport.”
While Chopra’s Olympic glory is a paradigm shift for Indian athletics, it has also brought a windfall for him, upping his brand equity and endorsement value by several multiples. Right now, Chopra has 14 brands in his portfolio, 12 of which were signed post-Olympics. Since Tokyo, his endorsement fees have also increased 10x to around Rs 3-4 crore per brand. According to industry sources, he is closing in on Rs 5-6 crore charged by cricketer MS Dhoni. In 2022 itself, Chopra has earned Rs 36 crore in endorsements. The only other non-cricket athlete to command a higher premium in terms of brand value is shuttler PV Sindhu, a world champion and two-time Olympic medallist, who ratcheted up a brand value of $22 million in 2021, according to Kroll’s Celebrity Brand Valuation Report. “Roping in new champions like Neeraj help marketers break the clutter of cricket and Bollywood,” says Aviral Jain, the managing director of Kroll, a valuation and risk consulting firm. “Also, for most of the cricketers, the brand portfolios are already saturated, which means there won’t be enough ROI with every new incremental endorsement they do. Neeraj’s portfolio is still fresh, and can be loaded upon.” Over the past year and a half, Chopra’s brand endorsements haven’t just gone deep, but wide too. His portfolio is versatile and replete with diverse categories like insurance, consumer durables, fintech, and also multinationals, among others. Similar to India’s top celebrities like Dhoni or cricketer Virat Kohli, he has been able to open up categories: Chopra (with GoodDot) is one of the few celebrities besides Kohli (with Blue Tribe) to represent emerging products like plant-based meat. His heartwarming story of learning to throw javelin through YouTube has fetched him an endorsement for the platform and a dedicated channel. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, a box-office hit from the Marvel stable that launched its teasers globally with celebrities like US popstar Rihanna, chose Chopra to feature in a co-promo in India. He was also the only non-cricketer to feature in a Cred ad during the second half of the 2021 IPL season that began in September. [The ad went viral with Chopra in multiple roles, but he plays down his part. “It was the first time I had to act, and I thought might as well do it to the best of my abilities—the same philosophy as throwing a javelin.”] “We have fairly stringent criteria in place when it comes to managing Neeraj’s portfolio,” says Divyanshu Singh, head of sales and marketing of JSW Sports that manages Chopra the brand. “One of the things is to understand his likes and dislikes. Neeraj is very sure that he doesn’t want to do anything with alcohol, sugar drinks or online gambling, because he considers himself a role model for kids. And he is walking the talk. You won’t see any of the categories in his portfolio.”Also read: Dreaming big leagues: Can European elite clubs change grassroots football in India? Among the multinationals in his portfolio are companies like Under Armour that has a cohort of global legends like NFL’s Tom Brady, heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua, former American wrestler and actor Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, and swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete. The brand was launched in India in 2019 by Tushar Goculdas, who then went on to found Underdog Athletics in 2021 that became the exclusive India distributor and licensee for Under Armour. This year, it roped in Chopra as its first big-ticket ambassador. “Dwayne Johnson talks about being the hardest worker in the room. Hard work, determination, grit and coming from nowhere—these are some of the values that we represent. And that’s what Neeraj brings for us as well,” says Goculdas, managing director, Underdog Athletics. That the Tokyo Olympics was a watershed moment for Chopra was evident from his soaring social media presence as well. Metrics tracked by JSW show that, during the Games, Chopra became the most mentioned athlete globally with 2.9 million mentions from over 1.4 million authors on Instagram; the former is a 1,401 percent increase and the latter 2,055 percent, albeit from a smaller base. In the six months following the gold medal, his social media following rose to over 6 million cumulatively, representing a rise of over 3,000 percent, while his reach in the aftermath of Tokyo 2020 soared to 412 million, making his social media valuation a whopping Rs 428 crore. “With his social media numbers, even the International Olympic Committee [IOC] is looking at him to drive the Olympic movement in India,” says Singh. As part of that, Chopra returned to the stadium in October to participate in the ‘Thank You Tokyo’ event organised by the committee.
Chopra is aware of his popularity and fame, but wears it lightly. He still manages to sneak out to a mall wearing a mask and a cap that covers much of his face. At times, he does get recognised, but has learnt to live with it. “Autograph and selfie requests are okay. At least I get recognised for doing something good. It’s better than being infamous,” he says with a laugh. Every time he goes back to his village, to his joint family of 19, he goes back to being the chubby kid who hung out with everyone. That’s also the only time he manages to gorge on panipuris or sleep late in winter, favourites he’s had to weed out of his life during training. His strict regimen during season also means he has learnt to turn a blind eye to baklava when in Turkey despite his “sweet tooth”.
People who know Chopra well say he is nothing if not self-effacing. A video of him touching an elderly fan’s feet in Stockholm went viral. “If he was in a team sport, he would be the captain who would take everyone along,” says Goculdas. After the final round of the World Championships in Eugene, Chopra is said to have sat down with Rohit Yadav, another finalist who ended up in the 10th spot, and advised him to consume protein to increase strength. “He even served more protein on his plate,” adds Goculdas who was at the venue. “Even now when he’s in South Delhi, he makes it a point to visit our store at the Promenade mall and meet the staff.” For Chopra, achievements mean zero if they can’t make him happy. “Covid showed us how our plans can get foiled anytime. But we must still find happiness. Bas khush reh ke apna kaam karte jao,” he says. “For me, it’s the javelin.” His positive outlook and disposition helped him come out of an elbow injury in May 2019 that was possibly the toughest setback he faced in his career. During his rehab, Chopra worked on daily targets and focussed on conquering them first. “Eventually, small steps you take add up to something big,” he says. That’s the approach he uses to draw his blueprint for the future. The bird’s eye, of course, is Paris Olympics 2024, but the preparation begins with conquering immediate goals like the Diamond League, Asian Championships, the Asian Games and the World Championships in 2023. “If I do these well, the momentum will carry me into the Paris Olympics.” Chopra’s high-jumper friend Shankar remembers the time when he had moved to the US to train with the NCAA. Being a vegetarian, he was struggling to get proper nutrition and wasn’t feeling energetic enough to train with full intensity. During a chat with him, Chopra, who too grew up vegetarian, told him he’d started eating chicken ever since he began to train in Turkey. “How did you do that, I asked him,” says Shankar. “To which he replied, ‘Tejaswin bhai, karam hi dharam hai (work is worship)’. That one line was enough to convince me and I started eating fish the next day.” Not just in sport, but in life too, Chopra is turning himself into a benchmark.