Reigning Olympic, world and Asian champion and the World No. 1 javelin thrower on how he dug deep into mental resilience to win the gold at the World Athletics Championship, and his plans to build up to Paris 2024
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.
(File) Neeraj Chopra celebrates after winning the men's javelin at the World Athletics Championship in Budapest. Chopra is the first Indian to win the event Image: Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP
Each year Forbes India sits down to thrash out its Showstoppers list, Neeraj Chopra gets the conversation started. If 2021 was his Olympic gold, and 2022 the marquee Diamond League, this year he became the first Indian athlete to win a gold at the World Athletics Championship (improving on his silver last year). Alongside, he also won the gold in the Asian Games and finished second in the finals of the Diamond League, winning its Doha and Lausanne legs en route.
The year 2024, of course, is the year of the Olympics, where Chopra goes in as the defending champion, shouldering the hopes of a billion Indians. The 26-year-old himself is quietly confident, as he tells Forbes India that his best is yet to come. After spending Diwali at home, he is now off to South Africa to resume training, where he’ll have the Games, beginning July 26, as the bird’s eye. But, before he spears in that perfect throw, the World No. 1 says he has something else to deal with: His expanding waistline.
Speaking at the RCB Innovation Lab x Leaders Meet: India, a two-day global sports conclave organised by IPL franchise RCB and sports event and media organisation Leaders In Sport, Chopra says, “Ghar mein ghee, churma, Diwali ki mithai, kuch zyada hi ho gaya. Abhi do-teen hafta training main isko ragdenge (I’ve binged on food while at home. Now, I have to shed the flab in the first few weeks of training).”
Later, sitting down for a one-on-one with Forbes India, he shares how a resilient mindset has seen him through tough times, even as he outlines his plans for the next year. Edited excerpts:
Q. After 2021 and 2022, 2023 has also been spectacular for you. You won the World Athletics championship and the Asian Games gold, and came second in the Diamond League. What makes you so consistent year after year? Ever since I won the gold in the Tokyo Olympics, my self-confidence has gone up by a few notches. It has made me believe that I can do even better. And I feel that my best is yet to come, so I keep pushing myself harder to reach that level. Every time I play in these big competitions, I tell myself that I have to reach my highest level here. While that hasn’t happened yet, this mindset has helped me attain a level of consistency. And the Tokyo Olympics have also taught me how to handle pressure—it’s a mindset that helps me perform well in key competitions.
Q. You have won every top competition there is and still say your best is yet to come. I can improve the distance of my throws, I can play in more competitions, I can be physically fitter. I have picked up injuries on several occasions, and have played in several competitions with those injuries and ended up winning. It makes me think that I would be able to throw so much better if I am completely fit and mentally at my strongest as well. It’s a thought that courses through my mind all the time. And I am always searching for an opportunity where I’m in my best shape—kahin bhi woh mauka mil jaaye mujhe toh main bahut achha throw karunga.
Q. How do you manage to handle the pressure of expectations now? It actually makes me happy to think that people expect me to do well. It acts as motivation. And I also have faith in myself that I can do even better going ahead. I work hard keeping this in mind. I don’t feel the pressure when I compete against world-class athletes. I never question if I’d be able to do well against them, or if my preparations are up to the mark. That’s because I’ve played so many competitions with them. Yes, in the initial days, I’d be a little nervous if I’d be able to beat them. But not anymore, since I am already beating them regularly. And, like I mentioned earlier, I think my best is yet to come, and my focus remains on throwing my best, not on beating any particular athlete. Agar hum khud ke andar khoye rahe, toh pressure ka time nahi milta (you will feel no pressure if you stay immersed in yourself).
Q. You are a big match player. You won the gold in your very first Olympics. You’ve won all the key finals. This year, you came back from an injury layoff and straightway won the Lausanne leg of the Diamond League. How do you perform so well in crunch matches? It was actually quite tough for me this year. My biggest target in 2023 was the World Championship in Budapest. But, before that, I picked up an injury in the middle of training. I wasted quite a few weeks thereafter, visiting doctors, in treatment, my fitness level had gone down. My body wasn’t in shape at all. I couldn’t even throw with a full run-up, which is the most important thing for a javelin thrower. It was just my mind which was constantly telling me that you have to go for the World Championship and do well.
I reached the tournament with the injury and a lot of my focus was on it—that I don’t worsen it during the tournament. My speed wasn’t great at Budapest, I wasn’t doing my run smoothly, it was a bit of a zigzag. I was stopping a bit before the throw, thinking “dhyaan se, phir se pain na ho jaaye (watch out so that it doesn’t start to pain again)”. Despite that, I won the gold. I would attribute that to the mindset. I have realised what a positive mindset can help you achieve.
Chopra also won gold at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China Image: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
Q. So, it’s all about mindset… Take the Asian Games in Hangzhou, the year’s last competition held in September-October. I had played the Diamond League before going for the Asiad and was quite exhausted from all the travelling and the competitions. On top of that, the first throw wasn’t recorded due to a technical fault and I had to throw again. It impacted me quite a bit. In the Diamond League final, the competition before the Asian Games, I had thrown 83.80 m; before that, in Zurich, I had thrown about 85 m. Both those numbers weren’t great and I began thinking that maybe my preparations weren’t good enough. From that point, to throw what looked like over 88m in my first attempt at the Asian Games meant a lot. And to have to redo that made me doubt if I’ll throw this well in the entire competition ever again, especially when my subsequent throws weren’t good either—one was around 82m, the other around 84m.
But here’s where the mindset came into play. When Kishore Jena, my compatriot, threw a massive 87.54m, I began to feel ki hamare andar kuch to aisi cheez hai jo humko kuch alag karne ki capacity deta hai (we all have the capacity to do something special). We just need to dig it out. And my next throw came out as 88.88m. My season’s best came at the fag end of the season at a time I wasn’t in my best shape. When I look at these, I tell myself that I need to understand myself better to identify what made me perform in these situations. This is the mindset that I’m looking to strengthen.
Q. The only thing that probably eludes you now is a throw of 90m, which most of your competitors have achieved and which everyone talks about. Do you think about the number often? 90m is an important target, but woh mujhe thoda sa hi reh gaya (I’ve almost reached that mark). I have already thrown 89.94m [at the Stockholm Diamond League in 2022]. The most important thing for me is to win big competitions beating the best of athletes. To win gold beating these athletes is tougher than throwing 90m. But I agree 90 is a magical mark in the world of javelin, and I want to do it. I have gotten quite close a few times since 2018, so I know I can do it. Let’s see when I reach there. Q. Indian javelin is now throwing up a lot of talents on the world stage. There’s DP Manu who made it to the finals of the World Championships, Kishore Jena won a silver in the Asian Games. What are the factors that have contributed to the success? Most athletes tell me—and this is something I won’t say myself—that their mindset has changed since the Tokyo Olympics, when I won the gold. They tell me that that’s when they realised they can win too. Second, our athletes are quite talented. They have fast arms, which is key for a good throw. So, they have the capacity, they have the belief, and now they are training in the right direction. The facilities have improved, more sponsors are coming in, help is pouring in from all quarters. All these inspire us to work even better. And with the mindset to win, our performances have also become world class.
Q. How are you building up to Paris 2024? I am leaving for South Africa in the first week of December, where I will train and iron out whatever weaknesses I’ve had in my performance this year. I will prepare myself fully—both physically and mentally—to go to Paris. Before that, I will take part in selective competitions so that I don’t get exhausted. To train consistently, to stay injury-free and to keep my mindset positive—that’s the target I have set for myself.