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.
India's Neeraj Chopra in action during the Lausanne Diamond League. Chopra won the tournament after returning from a month-long injury layoff
Image: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
If an idiom could define Neeraj Chopra, it would surely be ‘hit the ground running’.
After a month-long injury break that saw the Olympic champion missing three events, Chopra returned to the Lausanne leg of the Diamond League to finish at the top. This is Chopra’s second Diamond League victory this year, having won the Doha event in May. The 25-year-old now leads the qualifications for the final to be held in Eugene, US, in September. [The Diamond League is a series of track and field events culminating in a grand finale for which the top eight athletes qualify.]
Chopra was the first Indian to win the coveted Diamond League title in 2022, a year in which he also won a silver at the World Championships. His list of achievements, which include an Olympic gold in 2021, is nothing short of a fairy-tale considering that he took to athletics at 12, at the prodding of his uncle who wanted him to shed some weight.
What makes Chopra ready all the time, and enables him to pull out a first-place finish even after an injury layoff? “Neeraj is always prepared. He’s always confident. He knows he’s done the hard work,” says Rushdee Warley, CEO of Inspire Institute of Sport (IIS), the high-performance centre set up by the JSW Group in Karnataka.
Chopra, who has been supported by JSW Sports, the sports vertical of the steel conglomerate, since 2015, has spent a considerable amount of time at the IIS over various phases of his career, training and recovering from injuries. “He’s consistent in no matter what he does,” adds Warley. “You’ll see the same kind of application and effort from him on Day 1 of the week as you’ll see on the last day, during the last session of training.”
Add to that his incredible control over nerves, Manisha Malhotra, the head of sports excellence and scouting for JSW Sports had told Forbes India in an earlier interview. “Most Olympics first-timers tend to get a little overwhelmed by the moment. But not Neeraj. One of Neeraj’s biggest qualities as a sportsperson is to perform when it matters. He rises to the occasion,” Malhotra had said. Consider that Chopra qualified on his first throw in his first Olympics, and also ended up with a gold in his maiden appearance, something that even his childhood hero, Czech thrower Železný, didn’t achieve.
As Klaus Bartonietz, German biomechanics expert and his current coach had said: “Neeraj isn’t anxious, or superstitious, and neither over- or under-confident. It comes from knowing how well you have trained.”
How does Chopra keep his calm? “Because I don’t think about the result. I just try and throw the best that my body allows on a day,” he had once told Forbes India. It means he remains unfazed even when he has a poor start—like he did during the 2022 World Championships where he came from behind only with his fourth throw, or at the recently-concluded Lausanne Diamond League where he threw the winning distance of 87.66m with only his fifth.
Chopra’s achievements and his impact on Indian athletics is reflected in his brand valuation. In the latest Celebrity Brand Valuation Report released by valuation advisory services Kroll (formerly Duff & Phelps), Chopra debuts at No 23 with a brand value of $26.5 million. Along with shuttler PV Sindhu, who shares the rank with him, Chopra is the highest-valued non-cricket athlete in the country.
According to GroupM ESP’s Sporting Nation Report 2022, the spending on sports celebrity endorsement increased by 11 percent year-on-year in 2021. Of the 444 endorsement deals inked during this period, 126 were for non-cricketers. And Chopra would surely be at the forefront of that.
Says Aviral Jain, co-head and managing director of Kroll, "Neeraj continues his juggernaut journey with new titles under his belt. His consistent winning performances make him super attractive for brands looking to target Gen Z and millenials. He can further align with emerging technology-driven and digital businesses looking to challenge Goliaths of the industry."
Despite his illustrious CV at just 25, there’s a number that keeps chasing Chopra: The 90-m mark. Chopra is yet to breach the distance that most top javelin throwers in the world, like Johannes Vetter and Jakub Vadlejch, some of his closest rivals, have done already. But neither Chopra nor Warley are concerned. “The number isn’t important. I’d rather prefer consistent, good throws,” he had said during the interview.
Warley believes it’s one step at a time. “It’s a continuous and ongoing process. With the kind of hard work he’s putting in, 90m is only a matter of time.”