At the e.Adda last week, Olympic gold medallist Neeraj Chopra and bronze medal-winning wrestler Bajrang Punia spoke on preparing in the time of the pandemic, on life after their medals and what needs to be done to support emerging athletes.
On the excitement over the Olympics and the challenge of the pandemic
Bajrang Punia: We have been receiving a lot of love and respect after winning medals for the country. It has continued for over a month now, but that also means we have more responsibility, and we need to do more for the country. People came to the airport (to greet us) because they love us and support us. When we saw Sushil bhai (wrestler Sushil Kumar) being honoured at the airport in 2008, we had hoped that one day, people would do the same for us. That also motivated us to get an Olympic medal for the country. It was difficult for everyone to go to the Olympics this year. The rules and regulations were new for everyone. We thought the extra one year that we got because the Olympics were postponed would help us prepare better and we kept a positive attitude. We had to keep ourselves safe from infection and prepare. Our sport is such that even for wrestling training we have to do it with a partner. During COVID, things were a little difficult, we could not train with a partner for long and neither could we travel. We were nervous that we were not being able to prepare properly. But in the five to six months that we got, we did physical training, worked on our strength, discussed our weaknesses, exercised, worked on stamina.
Neeraj Chopra: Players (who did not win), too, had put in a lot of hard work. They should have also been thanked because they too played for the country. I think this year we got maximum medals in the Olympics and Paralympics. (In javelin) We have two gold medals, one silver, one bronze — a total of four medals. Javelin has also become popular in India. Our flag is reaching world level in javelin throw. It feels really nice.
On how their life has changed after the Olympics
Chopra: Earlier we could go anywhere, sit on the roadside and eat something… that is less now. Nowadays, due to COVID-19 we have to wear masks, but one day, people recognised me at Mumbai airport even though I had a mask on. It was good for us that so many people followed the Olympics this time. Now, people recognise us. Our performance was seen by everyone and the youth who want to join sports will also be inspired.
On going in for the win
Punia: When we go for a bout, we don’t think we will win by 8-0 or 10-0. When we start the bout, we just think we have to do our best. The score doesn’t matter, we have to focus on winning the bout, which will get us the medal — whether it is by 8-0, 4-4 or 10-0. We have to do our best.
Chopra: Just two days before the bout Bajrang bhai and I were at the gym. Bajrang bhai was wearing a sauna suit and running to reduce weight. He got a knee injury while wrestling in Russia but he kept saying, ‘this is the Olympics, I am not even thinking of the injury’. He had a plaster on his knee and wanted to give his best. When we talk to each other and see that spirit, it is very motivating.
On the mindset of sportspersons from Haryana
Chopra: We are stubborn.
Punia: When we put in hard work, there is a voice from inside that gives us the confidence to succeed. When I asked Neeraj how the competition was, he said there were 3-4 players who were throwing close to 90. There was a feeling inside that we have to perform for the country. Neeraj had a surgery one-and-a-half years back and because of COVID, it was good that we got one more year and were able to win that gold. It may not have been the same if it was earlier because he had a surgery. Neeraj beat the players close to 90, and got gold for the country. We have won a gold in athletics after 121 years. Milkha Singh used to say I want to see gold in athletics, if he was alive for another two-three months, he would have been able to see that.
On performing despite an injury
Punia: The doctor had said you are responsible if you play because your injury can become worse and you might need surgery. With the tape that was put on, my movement was restricted. In the last bout, I told the doctor I don’t want to put the tape on so he said put the kneecap instead. I said if I don’t win a medal now, even if it breaks, it doesn’t matter…. An Olympic medal comes first.
Chopra: In Haryana, we have a saying, Ke karegi tayari jab ladegi jidd aari, meaning sometimes our preparation may not be as good, but it’s about winning on the final day with one’s will power. We did it without any fear.
Punia: We had been preparing. Even if we could not train in the last 15-20 days, it didn’t matter.
On how important wisdom about sport is for an athlete
Chopra: It is very important. The wisdom that I have is because of injury. It teaches a lot. I thought about why it happened, what can I work on now. When my rehab was on, I would see other athletes performing and I would think all medals at the time were coming below 85-86. I would think I could not play this year, but in all competitions that is where the medals are coming. With an 86 meters throw, someone became a world champion that year. During that time I learned patience. Earlier during training, if we felt there was pain or discomfort, we would continue. Now we think about it, discuss it with the coach, physiotherapist, we work as a team. We have to save ourselves from an injury. We focus on how we can perform well in the final, we are learning about that in training.
On making sacrifices and never having seen a film in a theatre
Punia: I have never been inside a cinema hall, but I haven’t left any film on TV. I wanted to win an Olympic medal and then do other things. To win something, we have to lose something. Even now, I haven’t gone to a theatre to watch a movie. During those three hours, we can rest, do training, so we think about the time. We don’t sit at a place for three hours, we are either sleeping or training.
I was staying with Yogeshwar bhai (Dutt) till 2016. When I had to call home, I would use his phone. Then he entered politics, got married, started staying at home and it was then that I started keeping a phone. I needed a phone to talk to people at home. Nowadays children are all busy on the phone. They should be directed towards real games, it will keep them fit too. Nowadays parents give kids books and a phone and they stay in a room, but games are also important. Earlier children played in the mud, now parents don’t let them step down from the bed thinking they will become dirty. These things should be avoided. We should follow the practices shared by our elders.
On learning javelin in a place that has no culture of the sport
Chopra: There is a network problem in our village, so YouTube wouldn’t work but I saved videos on my phone. I trained with my heart. It was a new sport and I didn’t know what lay ahead. I understood what javelin is. I’m still learning and perfecting it. I wanted to train well and give it my 100 per cent. The result might come later because it is a physical and technical sport and we reach that level gradually… We are still not perfect. We are still improving. I think till the end of our careers we will be learning.
Punia: Coaches, too, are learning. There is no age to learn. It takes a lifetime.
Chopra: Coaches also learn from each athlete they work with.
On what can be done for emerging athletes
Chopra: I’m lucky because when I first went there (JSW’s Inspire Institute of Sport), I got help. Most athletes don’t. They go to the stadium, no one knows what the facilities are, so even talented people find it hard to continue due to lack of facilities and guidance. Many people are from middle-class families or poor homes. Most come from villages, so they should get facilities of this level. We need good coaches and supporting staff who can guide us.
On the WWE moves
Punia: We can do all the moves in wrestling but the WWE you are talking about is fake, The stunts that they do, we can’t. It’s a game of showing off and that’s how they earn money. Wrestling is our oldest game. Even if we leave two children together, they start wrestling. It is a natural game. There are many techniques and we keep learning. Coaches also keep learning. If you want the movie to be a hit, you will have to put in masala. In the film Sultan, Salman Khan sometimes becomes a wrestler, then a boxer, a fighter, those things are for entertainment.
On being married to a fellow wrestler
Punia: Yes, both of us are wrestlers, so we discuss our strengths and weaknesses. Since Sangeeta is a wrestler, she understands things regarding training, rest. Ever since we got married 5-6 months ago, we have been away from each other. She understands these things since she too is a sportsperson.
Questions and Answers
Neeraj, your performance at the Olympics and what you have achieved, is an inspiration not just for the whole country, but also a personal inspiration for someone like me, who invests a lot of time in fitness. To see how you have pushed yourself, trained, and what you have achieved, it’s really inspiring. Bajrang, I saw your training videos and felt very emotional seeing them. I have not seen physical training like that in India. One can see the amount of effort and hard work you’ve put into it. You both have inspired the whole country.
Chopra: It feels nice when someone of her stature acknowledges our hard work.
Punia: When people see how hard we work, and they share their blessings with us, it motivates us to work harder and foray ahead. It’s good to see people pushing and rooting for us.
German javelin thrower
Mr Chopra, how does it feel to be an Olympic champion? I look forward to competing with you and against you in the next season.
Chopra: This has got to be the best message for me. I had wished to speak with Vetter after the Olympics. I had seen him, but then I couldn’t make myself go and speak with him. He is a world class athlete who had worked his way to such a level, but for him to not even score in the top eight was quite disheartening. He was close to setting a world record and didn’t even get into the best eight-slot, so I didn’t feel that it was the right time to speak to him. It was not his day. He is a great athlete, I wanted to hug him and make him believe that he is the best. I hope he makes a world record soon… When we went to Finland, we went in the same car. He was number one at that time. We talked a lot, about our families, our countries, I learned a lot about Germany.
Former Indian Cricketer
You’ve reached such heights at the beginning of your career. How do you continue the momentum? How do you deal with controversies that surround our sports stars?
Neeraj: Many people used my name and spread a lot of lies. They didn’t know the rules. But I was sure about the truth, and the rules, so I spoke about it. As for early fame, I have a long way to go in my career with my team. I have many other competitions to take part in and do much more such as getting back to fitness and giving results.
Former Indian cricketer
When we play cricket and display aggression on TV, people think we are fighting with our opponents. Off the ground we share our life stories and befriend them. Bajrang, you play a contact sport, you come off as a lot more aggressive, what’s your message for the people who are watching you?
Punia: Recently this issue of Neeraj and this Pakistani player came up. Let’s assume that when we are competing on the field, we are enemies. Yes, we have to defeat them. But when we come off the ground, we are friendly, we don’t discriminate. As a wrestler, we have to deal with close contact. When you are off the mat, those feelings are different. We talk, we sit together and joke as friends.
Chopra: This time, there was this quote in the Olympics, ‘Stronger together’. I believe that everyone comes to compete and win. We have to give our 100 per cent, irrespective of the fact that our own brother is competing against us. We live together in the games village, eat together. It’s a feeling of a village, just like my own village, where everyone lives together. But in the stadium, we compete.
Former comptroller and auditor general of India
Neeraj, when you held the javelin, what was going on in your mind? Bajrang, you had an injury in your right knee. How did you face that challenge?
Chopra: When I had the javelin in my hand, I was thinking I have to do a runup on this much meter, have to start taking close steps from here, then use full force from here. When we are standing for the run-up, everything is blank. The only thing on our mind is to give it our 100 per cent. I would have done thousands and lakhs of throws But at the run-up we just think of giving our maximum.
Punia: In wrestling, many players play with injuries. The game teaches us a lot. Neeraj also came back after an injury. My injury was bad. During the Olympics, every athlete wants to win a medal for the country. I thought that after this if I need surgery, it is not a big deal. When we are on the mat we need to forget those things, otherwise we can’t perform. Your support staff matters, how they motivate you matters. We thought the injury can go to hell, we have to perform.
Managing Director and CEO, Bharat Serums & vaccines
My friend Abhinav Bindra speaks a lot about mental fitness along with physical one. You both were looking so relaxed when you entered your respective match-winning bouts.
Chopra: Great training contributes to our confidence. Our body needs to be in control. Sometimes because of overtraining in the off-season, we feel the body is tight. I was listening to music the previous night and was just playing the scenario in my head. I kept thinking that this is the day that I have worked so hard for.
Former BCCI Treasurer
With your medal, there is an interest among young children in javelin. How do we hone their talent so that we can hope for medals in 2025? Also, will easy access to sports psychology in terms of nutrition impact the growth of developing athletes?
Chopra: In rural India we have a lot of natural talent. Many kids have what is called a ‘fast arm’. We throw stones with natural ease. Similarly, in javelin, we have to throw things, mixed with technique and body strength. We have that talent in India that can be used in javelin, cricket, and even baseball, which is still not very prevalent in India. We have academies that train youngsters in cricket, but sadly we don’t have any for javelin. We are trying and looking for senior athletes who can train in javelin and start something. It’s quite technical, so they need guidance. I am just happy that people now recognise javelin, and I would like to be able to guide people who want a future in javelin.
Principal Secretary, Industries and Commerce (I&C) and Information technology (IT), Telangana government
You must have dealt with various sports associations, like the one in your state, and then international ones.We have them in our country too but what more can
Chopra: There are many empty grounds all over, we need coaches over there. We need more competitions. We need opportunities to perform. We, at times, are not able to show our range, as there are fewer opportunities. You can keep increasing our facilities — from stadiums to equipment, to javelins — and many kids in our country will join in.
Head, Marketing and Communication, Steadfast Nutrition
What is the importance of nutrition and what is the message that you have for the youth of the country in terms of sports nutrition?
Chopra: Nutrition plays a key role in sports, and added with other things, there is also a science to this, hence we see lots of records being made and broken. Sports nutrition is a very important aspect, we cannot ignore it. Imagine, if we train properly and then go eat tikki-choley, and not eat the diet prescribed to us, then what’s the point. We have dieticians who prescribe us what we can eat and what not, and even though we don’t like it, we have to follow it. Diet is very important and is inseparable from sports. We also need to pay attention to not get swayed by taste alone. We face a lot of problems when we travel abroad to play, we don’t get food which we like or are familiar with, we largely get boiled food. We end up adding ketchup in rice to make it palatable. An athlete’s body needs specific nutrition, and when we get swayed by taste and compromise on nutrition, we end up compromising on our performance. Young athletes need to embrace nutrition to play better.
Co-Founder, The Hindu Zone
How has the attitude of the family, people, and society changed towards you? Also, as an athlete, how easy or difficult is it for someone with only their talent to take them forward, to become an international star?
Neeraj: A lot of talent goes to waste due to the lack of equipment, stadiums and coaching. If we have these things under control, the level of sports will go up in this country.
Punia: Well, the love and affection that we have received after coming back, we have never seen it before in our lives. Even small kids come to us and get their pictures clicked with us, or when they tell us that they watched my wrestling or that they saw Neeraj’s throw, it’s quite a nice feeling.