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Neeraj Chopra, the Aberration That Needs to Become the Norm

Neeraj Chopra’s gold is a celebration but also a reminder that we need to do more when it comes to sports. We need structure, deep networks to work the grassroots and diligent, fail-safe policies. We also need people at the helm who aren’t going to be swayed once things are ready for implementation.
Neeraj Chopra en route javelin gold medal at Tokyo Olympics

Neeraj Chopra in full stride during his gold-medal winning throw in the final of the javelin event at the Tokyo Olympics on Saturday (Pic: The Hindu, Twitter).

We Indians have this habit of going a little ahead of the moment — the future beckons much before the horizon of our existential present arrives. And, in these seconds, we miss the sense of the occasion, for we have moved onto interpreting the future, assuming and debating what it holds vis-a-vis the greatness that transpired in front of your eyes just now. Right now…

Neeraj Chopra’s gold medal was no different. Tears wiped, we immediately built castles and academies that would churn out javelin throwers. Many predicted a resurgence of interest in Olympic sports, even cricketers did. 

Chopra was not spared either. We yanked him out of his moment and forced him to worry about the future, and his legacy too, which in any case is sealed in gold now. What more should he do? Well he should explain the meaning of his gold!

Also Read | Tokyo Olympics: Neeraj Chopra Wins Javelin Gold, New Chapter in India’s Olympic History

Just moments after the podium he was asked by the official broadcasters what it meant for India. He replied nonchalantly, like any athlete should. And one can’t help but fall in love with man once more for that answer. 

In thick Hindi he replied, “I reckon the whole of India will be very happy just like I am now. Everyone will be happy and celebrating.”

Happiness. These moments should be cherished. Should be left undisturbed so that the equilibrium in the variables in our lives that brings tears of joy in our eyes and smiles on our masked faces, should be left untouched. Future, be damned. Be in the present, please. We have fought and are fighting a pandemic. We should know better. 

We did celebrate Chopra over our timelines, and more importantly, in our consciousness… even those who aren’t inclined to be sports fans. This is what gold does to you. A lesser medal would not have elicited such a phenomenon, surely. And this happens to be a marquee among gold medals too. A gold from the hallowed and celebrated athletics stadium. Gold. Gold….. Future!

There, with the F word we have upset the equilibrium of joy. We have discarded the moment, banishing it to a lesser existence on our social media memory walls. Let us debate, the inscrutable Indians we are!

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The future is nothing but a construct of the daily grind, and not set through a special moment, even if that moment happens to be history making, and a pinnacle in an athlete's career. Till Saturday afternoon, Chopra’s future course was not set by some defining moment in India’s Olympic history. It was triggered by chance happenings in his life as a teenager, when he took to the sport on a whim. Then, over the course of the nine years since that discovery, it was also about the training — day in and out, alone, sweating it out, refining his body dynamics, and the throwing action which is so entrenched in our mind now that we can possibly replicate it in our sleep.

That’s the point, though. We can only replicate it in our sleep. And asleep we have been — eyes shut to what our athletes possess, and what our athletes can achieve out there. And it is not the sleep of the billion plus fans that is the problem. The establishment sleeps in India too, replicating meagre successes and singing about grandeur while in a slumber. 

And when the alarm clock rings, every four years, to usher in the light, usher in the Olympic Games, they wake up, dust the sports policy books, and cross fingers, hoping athletes would have made it to that edition win a few medals, or miss some by a whisker — both the narratives helping them cover up for not doing their jobs right, and gloss over shortcomings in policy. 

The vicious cycle will remain, with or without these seven medals which India managed at the Games to finish 48th on the medal tally. Being the person who calls out the half empty glass, being the eternal cynic amidst celebration, let me earnestly pop the bubble. Seven medals, even with the gold, in a gross underachievement by India. And the fault lies in not Chopra, or Bajrang Punia, or Mirabai Chanu or PV Sindhu, or Lovlina Borgohain, or Ravi Dahiya or the men’s hockey team, or the many athletes who missed out narrowly, or by a long shot.

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Will Chopra’s gold change athletics forever in the country? Let us not overshoot too much. Will Chopra’s medal change javelin, the event, and how it is looked at in the country? Abhinav Bindra’s gold did change shooting’s fortunes, didn’t it? Well of course, but let us also not forget that India has not won a medal in shooting in the last two editions of the Olympics. Ever wondered why? Ever tried to look under the tightly woven PR canopies to understand how 'talent' fails on the grand stage? It is apparent that in shooting, things have rolled back to the status quo before Beijing 2008 — world class talent who fall short on the grand stage. 

Forget shooting. Let us all throw now. Many say Chopra’s gold will work magic. Many say kids will walk into the dusty PE room in their schools, and from the dark corner, they would dig out the bamboo javelin with the rusted tip, take it out, and start throwing. More-or-less like how Chopra himself began.

But we are missing the point. That’s not what a country should be wishing for if we are seriously dreaming of (we are still sleeping right) gold, silver or bronze at the highest level. We need to remove the “chance” out of discovery when it comes to sports.

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For that we need structure. We need deep networks to work the grassroots. We need fail-safe, uncorrupt and diligent policies. Not centralised, grand Games, a.k.a Khelo India. And we need people at the helm — government or the federations — who negate the sickening human element at the implementation stage, once things are set to be implemented that is.

Until those factors change, Chopra will remain an aberration in this country’s sportscape. A rare aberration. And, since we were throwing about numbers to reiterate the historic gravitas of his gold (first gold in the 125-year history of the Olympic Games), we should also reiterate the implication of this stretched timeframe. Chopra happens to be a once-in-a-century aberration, or rather celestial event, in Indian sport. Some math to look at the future in a different light, that’s all!

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