Neeraj Chopra did not just win a gold medal, flinging the javelin a staggering 87.58m to top the charts in Tokyo, but vaulted himself into history books as well as the consciousness of a medal-starved nation. It would go down, to date, as the most historic of medals in India’s Olympic history. Perhaps, the most historic in the nation’s sporting history. The gold, a historic first for the country in track and field, the second for an individual ever and the first since Abhinav Bindra’s in 2008, would also ensure India’s richest-ever tally (seven).
Much before he won the country’s first-ever track and field medal, they used to call Neeraj the village headman in Khandra, near Panipat. What started as a joke turned out prophetic. It’s one Neeraj story, his uncle Bhim Chopra never tires of narrating.
His story is as much endearing as it is inspiring. While still in school, Neeraj once came home crying. It was very soon after he had rushed out of his house, excited to show his sparkling white new kurta-pyjama to his friends. A stray taunt by one of his playmates would make Neeraj a butt of jokes among pals. The incident would also change his life and give him an apt nickname for the rest of his life.
“Dekho sarpanch ji agaye”, was the sarcastic comment that had left Neeraj deflated back in the day. His father and uncle would enrol him at a local gym to toughen him up. They wanted the boy to fight his own battles, instead of coming home in tears with complaints. Neeraj would get hooked, develop muscles, channelise his newfound strength to hurl a javelin and with time be among the best in the world.
The Asian and Commonwealth golds in 2018, was a turning point in Neeraj’s life in terms of fame and recognition. But the 23-year-old has always remained oblivious to the trappings of stardom. The prize money and sponsorship deals post-2018 helped him fulfil some long-standing desires but they still remain grounded.
Additions such as a new three-storied house with a fully equipped gym, a Harley Davidson bike, an SUV and three tractors are superficial, feels father Satish. “Yes, the next generation of the Chopras has access to better facilities now. But for me what matters is that we are happy and stay together as a family. Family is everything for me. Ye gadi vadi ka shauk nahi hai mujhe,” says father Satish who still spends most of his time tending to the family farms.