Sportsperson of the year 2021: Neeraj Chopra, the gold standard

Historically, Indians have not invested their energies and expectations in the Olympics. The near misses and dashed hopes, one individual gold medal in 20 editions and a team gold that dates back to 1980. With two days to go, India’s Tokyo 2020 campaign was heading the London 2000 Games way—six medals, none of them gold. That is until a 23-year-old athlete from Panipat in Haryana entered the arena and made history by winning India’s first gold medal in athletics. Not only did Chopra popularise javelin throw in the process but he showed that Indian athletes have the mental fortitude to deliver under tremendous pressure. He proved that it is possible for a non-cricketer to inspire, unite and enthral Indians.

Before Chopra’s herculean feat in Tokyo, weightlifter Saikhom Mirabai Chanu had overcome the disappointment of Rio 2016 to finally add an Olympic medal to her accomplishments. Two more women wowed. Boxer Lovlina Borgohain punched her way to a bronze and shuttler P.V. Sindhu became only the second Indian athlete to win consecutive Olympic medals, this time a bronze. At Rio, it was the women—Sindhu and Sakshi Malik (wrestling)—who saved India the blushes with two medals; in Tokyo, it was again women who scripted some of the most inspiring stories of 2021.

C.A. Bhavani Devi became India’s first representative in fencing; golfer Aditi Ashok agonisingly missed out on a podium finish after four fine days on the course; and the women’s hockey team had a dream run making it to the semi-finals, all the more impressive given they had lost all the matches at the 2016 Olympics. Adding to the feel-good narrative were wrestlers Ravi Dahiya and Bajrang Punia whose performances ensured that India’s strong showing in the sport continued with medals in each Olympics edition since 2008.

Towards the tail end of the year, badminton fans got to see one of the finest hours in the men’s game with Kidambi Srikanth and Lakshya Sen winning silver and bronze respectively in the World Badminton Championships. But it was the Olympic athletes who upstaged the Men in Blue this year. The latter made headlines more for behind-the-scenes controversies than memorable performances on the pitch. India lost to New Zealand in the World Test Championships Finals and failed to make it to the semi-finals of the T20 World Cup after being comprehensively beaten by Pakistan and New Zealand in the group stage. Soon, Virat Kohli left his post as T20 captain and the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) picked Rohit Sharma to lead the team. Later, the BCCI would designate Sharma as captain for the ODIs too; Kohli says he was blindsided by the decision.

With India’s most popular sportsperson struggling for form, Indians found a new sporting icon to root for in Chopra. While Chopra went into the Olympics Games Village as a strong medal hopeful, he didn’t let the occasion overwhelm him, coming across as an athlete who knew he was destined for big things. After all, he had made his case back in 2016 with the U20 World Championship title. At the India Today Conclave in October 2021, Manisha Malhotra, head of the sports excellence programme and talent scouting at JSW Sports, described Chopra as an ideal case study of the new-age Indian athlete. “The amount of self-confidence and self-belief they have is unbelievable. They walk around with a chip on their shoulder and believe they are at par, if not better than everybody else. I think this will be the best thing to happen to Indian sport in the next decade,” she said.

For Chopra, Olympics was the moment he had waited for all along. Recovering from a back injury, he had resumed competing in 2020 only to see the Covid-19 pandemic put the sporting calendar in disarray. The Tokyo Games were delayed by a year and most international competitions cancelled. As the world gradually opened up in 2021, Chopra urged government authorities, including the Sports Authority of India, to facilitate his international travel for training and competition. The two months spent preparing abroad reaped dividends on August 7.

A single throw of 87.58 metres has changed Chopra’s life. His social media following has skyrocketed. He’s now a sought after face for brands and magazine covers. Getting mobbed by fans is routine now. Chopra is unfazed by the attention and adulation that has come his way. His humble origins, cool temperament and fun Instagram reels have only added to his appeal. That he is fashion conscious and an unabashed believer in retail therapy has seen even those not inclined towards sports embrace him.

With age on his side and the Paris Games less than three years away, Chopra doesn’t want to rest on his many laurels. There’s a hunger to excel more, to cross the 90-metre mark that a few of his rivals have. “I have a habit…I keep my medal aside when I want to focus on the next goal,” Chopra said at the India Today Conclave. In 2022, Chopra will be looking to add another Asian Games gold to his collection and perform well in the Diamond League circuit. With his positive attitude and hard work, the results are expected to be nothing less than gold standard.

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