Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain, and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own.
Most throwers make “an attempt to throw the javelin as quickly as possible, don’t draw their throwing arm as far as they could. The longer they delay releasing their arm, the more distance they can get… Arm delay is something, you keep trying to drill into an athlete’s head. Today, perhaps just the best five throwers have that quality…Neeraj already has that ability.” – Gary Calvert, Coach for India’s Javelin team in 2016.
Neeraj Chopra won a Gold in Javelin Throw in Tokyo 2020 yesterday, the first-ever individual Gold in a track and field event for the country, the first Gold after Abhinav Bindra’s in 10-meter air rifle in Beijing 2008. Chopra made to the top in his debut appearance, a repeat of his performance in the Asian Games in 2018, and is the youngest Indian to win an Olympic Gold.
What struck me was the poise and the quiet confidence, swagger even, he brought to the performance, a feat almost unheard of amongst Indian athletes – maybe the Indian Hokey team was an exception decades ago. His dark blue gears can hardly but accentuate lean and muscled appearance, a Greco-Roman God in Brown, he jogs in with the javelin almost as an extension of his body. He pauses, adjusts his belt, looks and begins his sprint. He clocks 87.03 meters in his first throw. He almost makes it look like just another weekend practice throw, even as he proves to be a serious contender for Gold.
For his second he runs, he throws and he falls to the ground with a grunt. He picks up, starts to walk back with both hands raised and fingers in the air, does not even look back to find out how far the javelin went, his face is taut in acceptance of an outsized performance even before he knows of it, his right arm raised and bent at the elbow in a pose that is the mark of a victor. The commentator gushes on livestream “when you know you know”. Chopra knows, and so does India.
Chopra did not have many words to express the emotions he felt as the National Anthem played on the stands, we could see it in his face. When asked what he would do when he reaches home in Panipat, he could think only of home food but without specifics. He paid respect to Johannes Vetter, a Javelin legend who failed to perform in Tokyo. Most of all, he was eloquent about his journey. His body may be just made for the game right now, but he will interrupt and remind you that it is so only with after a decade of dedicated effort, starting as an overweight village boy.
Alongside Chopra in his journey were his family – his uncle introduced him to the game and ferried him every day to a faraway location, his family accepted his interest at face value and signed him up for a Sports Academy as opposed to a regular school with sole focus on academics. Indian industry stepped in –business house JSW picks up the tab for his training in India and abroad. Indian Army stepped in, and employed Chopra as a JCO but gave him carte-blanche; there is a telling picture of Chopra in long hair brimming among close-cropped, or turbaned, top-brass of the Army after his triumph in the 2018 Asian Games.
The same tale is repeated for all the individual winners. PV Sindhu, Bronze winner in Badminton in Tokyo 2020 and the only Indian woman to win two Olympic medals, had athletes for parents. Nobody else did. Both Ravi Kumar Dahia (winner of Silver in 57-kg freestyle men’s wrestling) and Bajrang Punia (winner of Bronze in 65-kg freestyle men’s wrestling) hail from Haryana villages, just like Chopra. Saikhon Mirabai Chanu (winner of Silver in 49-kg women’s weightlifting) hail from a village in Manipur while Lovlina Borgohain (winner of Bronze in women’s welterweight Boxing) hail from a village in Assam. Even then, family realized their potential, Dahiya’s father would trek 15 kilometers every day to fetch fresh milk for his son, Borgohain’s family egged on all three daughters to pick up their passion in martial arts, Chanu’s family saw the link of her inborn capacity to do heavy lifting chores to weightlifting as a sport.
As India picks up the largest haul in Olympics ever, it is hard not to notice a difference. Gone are the days when Olympics – or any other international competition for that matter – were as a state-paid boondoggle for Sports ministers, their minions and leaders of sports foundations along with their families, not that any of them ever paid anything but lip service to the cause of sports. This time the contingent was filled with players, individual coaches, sports medicine and conditioning experts – many of them dedicated to individual participants. I was struck by the look of professionalism and a zeal to win, not just to participate as was the case in years before. States within India placed athletes first too, the State of Odisha gave refuge to the Indian Hockey team that was a mere shadow of its glorious past and nurtured the team to a Bronze in Tokyo. Indian Railways was always big on sports, and this time one of their proteges, Dahia, earned a Bronze. JSW and the Indian Army both are basking in the reflected glory of Chopra.
If support of sports at the level of government or industry is at a high these days, it must be a new phenomenon. We still remember how the national soccer team was sent off to play in Olympics without shoes – a shameful saga whitewashed as a tale of grit for decades till the narrative was corrected in recent days. National level athletes, even winners at international competitions, got a pat in the back and a medal, maybe even a national award, before complete oblivion and penury for many. India did not have enough sports venues where old generation could be gainfully employed to groom the future, leadership in sports ‘authorities’ were disbursed as a political favor to minions and supporters as trophy (or source of fortune in many cases) – upliftment of the specific sporting activity was never a contention. It is changing, even if slowly. Government-funded sports academies dotting the countryside provide proving and training grounds. Businesses are looking beyond Cricket to find their brand ambassadors. Some of the new business bosses remember own beginning in remote villages, or they revel in their current status in cultural pariah – and they find camaraderie in athletes they are increasingly willing to use as emissary.
I can not say the same at the family level. For every story of remarkable support to Chopra, Dahia, Chanu, Borgohain, Punia or Sidhu, there are thousands, millions even, stories of how India squanders the spirit of sports. A large part is spent in misguided emphasis on scoring one point extra in exams – a carry-over from decades of economic stagnation where comfortable existence with conscience required acceptance into a few well-defined professional circles – doctors, engineers, government servants, armed forces and the like. It is changing, but the mindset is hard to shake-off.
What is not changing, even going worse, is the India’s worship of Cricket as a ‘sport’. I am in a minority when I say this, but I never – repeat never – considered Cricket as one; Cricket stays true to its origin as afternoon pastime of British feudal lords between breaks for sipping tea. Cricket has its well-earned, and much-needed, place as entertainment that captivates alongside Bollywood. Just like Bollywood, the Indian product is the undisputed world-leader, bringing in billions and employing thousands; Cricketers abroad dream of earning a place in Indian teams which pay far more than they’d otherwise get. If Cricket were part of Olympics, an Indian team is almost assured of a Gold. But Cricket is not, and should never be.
If India were to really dream bigger in sports, She needs to stop siphoning sports budget to Cricket. For one, there is already enough corporate support at all levels, families dream of stardom that can equivalently be achieved in Bollywood or in Cricket. Sports Authority of India must be dedicated to actual sports, including Indian contenders not yet included in Olympics, like Kabbadi. To bring about social change, a minimum standard may need be introduced as passing requirement for secondary education, or, at a minimum, mandatory sports classes where progress is measured and schools assessed on a collective basis. Corporates must look far and wide beyond Cricketers to find stories of accomplishment and grit, and leadership of sports authorities must be reserved for people who actually played the sport at national levels.
Neeraj Chopra’s win captivated Indian psyche much more than Abhinav Bindra’s in 2008 for a good reason. Chopra represents the real India, the one that speaks vernacular languages and rustic tongues, hails from villages or smaller towns. He won in a sport that must have existed in Harappan India, as much as old Greece, in some form. It is almost a rediscovery of the soul of the country – simple, determined, highly practiced yet effortless in his craft. As India searches for the next Neeraj, soul-searching must begin within and may break some orthodoxies.
Just like Neeraj could and did. Can India?