He might have recorded the second best throw in the world this season, but as the clock ticks down to the Olympics, Neeraj Chopra -- India's best hope for a track and field medal -- is desperate to get the competitive exposure he says would be critical to his prospects in Tokyo.
The 21-year-old's last international competition was at the South African Grand Prix in January 2020, where he qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. That tournament, in turn, had come after a nearly year and a half break owing to an elbow injury. He's competed only twice more since then, both in Patiala -- at the Indian Grand Prix in February and March this year. It's where he'd set a new national record with a throw of 88.07m -- second only to Johannes Vetter in all competitions this season.
Chopra was supposed to head out for a training camp in Turkey followed by competitions in Europe earlier this month, but those plans were cancelled with several countries shutting their doors to Indians following the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic here. Stuck in Patiala, Chopra knows this isn't ideal.
"We are all training but if we don't get competition, what's the point of all the training? We have been training continuously since last year but if we want to check our levels ahead of the Olympics, we have to compete against the guys who will be competing in the Olympics. If we think that we just have to train here and we will give our 100 percent at the Olympics, then it will be hard," he said in an interaction arranged by the Sports Authority of India.
Chopra knew that competition wouldn't have been possible in 2020 when COVID-19 first spread across the world. But he had hoped to compete abroad this year. "It isn't that other international throwers aren't competing. They are competing and we [Indians] still aren't. It's been two years since I have got any international competition. That makes me feel I need some experience. I didn't get any competition in 2019 because of my [elbow] injury and then I missed a year because of [the pandemic]. Those years have been a waste," he says.
Even the fact that his performances have only been improving right here in Patiala isn't enough. "I did make a throw of 88m here but I felt I could do better given the way I have been training. I'm physically stronger so I feel I could have thrown more. But I didn't have the experience," he says.
Not helping with his frustration is the weight of expectations the 2018 CWG and Asian Games gold medallist carries on his shoulders. "There are so many expectations but people don't understand what it takes. It's not like you just show up against the world level and win a medal. You need experience. If you have to perform at the world level, you need world level experience. I don't have any experience of competing at the Olympics. The confidence level has to be high. It's a physical sport and unless we have the confidence that we are ready for that level then it will be hard to perform," he says.
Perhaps the lack of exposure might have mattered less at another Olympics. But Neeraj knows that the field in Tokyo is one of the strongest ever assembled in the javelin throw competition. "I don't know what the medal winning throw will be. In London, gold went at around 84. In Rio, the bronze went at 85m. It wasn't that they were bad throwers but there is something about Olympic pressure. I think this time the medal winning throws will be higher because this group of throwers is one of the best in history. There are so many guys who throw over 90m. Right now there are 7-8 throwers who throw regularly above 87m," he says.
For now, Chopra can't do much more than try and stay positive and focus on his training. Even that will get harder still. In the months of May and June, Patiala can get sweltering, recording temperatures of over 45 degrees Celsius -- which is why the shift to cooler climes in Europe would have made a lot of sense. Chopra knows this too. "It's hard to train in this heat. It's very hot here. If you go to the ground, it's difficult to stand for 5 minutes because it's so hot. But what can you do? You have to train! I was saying at least where you have a national camp, you should have an indoor track. This should be there. If you have one, you can train whatever the weather. It's already quite hot and it will be even hotter," he says.
In the present scenario it's taking all of Chopra's determination to stay positive and focus on the task at hand. He's even stopped listening to the news and reading the papers to aid that cause. "We have on one hand to try and be positive. But on the other hand we are surrounded by negative news about the coronavirus. There is so much suffering and so many people have died. When I speak to my family, I'll hear of a distant relative who has passed away. It's a difficult situation to deal with. But we are sportspersons so we have to concentrate on our sport," he says.