No pre-approved questions, no templated answers and completely no holds barred- our interview with Neeraj Chopra, India's first-ever track-and-field Olympic gold medallist, was very much like the breath of fresh air the athlete himself has proved to be since be became the nation's heartbeat on the night of 7 August, 2021 in Tokyo.
From Phagwara to Pune to Lucknow to Panipat, Neeraj Chopra and his Tokyo gold medal have packed in more domestic air miles than any other Indian in the three weeks since that night in Tokyo. He's suffered from a bout of fever in the middle and also had to pull out of the rest of the competitive athletics season to be able to allow every last fan of his to be associated with his medal celebrations.
"Do you regret not returning to the world circuit immediately, when you are clearly at your peak," I ask as we start the interview.
"There is a little regret that I am missing the events, yes, but the Olympics were my main target for the year. It is also important for me to attend these ceremonies because I want people to see that when an athlete wins a medal, this is how much he is celebrated. The young children out there, they should not associate a medal only with hard work, they should also see the love and respect that comes with it, so they can aspire for it as well," he said.
That simple. Yes, I made a decision and I stand by it. No blaming a bout of sickness or any outside forces. An honest answer to set the agenda for the rest of the interview.
His honesty and ability to stand by his decisions may also just be what helped Neeraj win the historic gold for India in Tokyo.
Earlier this year in May, while speaking at a media session organised by the Sports Authority of India, Neeraj spoke out against his Federation and the Ministry making a public plea to be sent overseas to train, compete and prepare for the Olympics.
Since his surgery in late 2019, he hadn't been sent overseas to participate in any international events for almost two years, first due to the lockdowns and then due to the Federation's inability to send their star athlete overseas while the shooting contingent were sent to Europe on charter planes and wrestlers and boxers were all travelling out of the country for training camps. One week after that media session, Neeraj was on his way to Europe where he set up camp in Sweden for the next few months and competed among the javelin throwers whom he beat in Tokyo.
"Is that the Neeraj we will continue to see? One who speaks for what he believes in?" I ask while also enquiring about his recent decision to post a video slamming those who tried to create a controversy while using his comment on Pakistani javelin star Arshad Nadeem.
"What I know about and what I am fully informed about, like when I knew I needed to go overseas and compete before the Olympics and now, with the recent incident, where I knew I need to speak - I will speak. What I am not sure about, I try to not speak about those things. Regarding this (Nadeem incident) I know the rules and I knew that wrong information was being spread, I decided to speak out. The way misinformation was being spread, it was not right," the 23-year-old told The Quint.
Fame, and all that comes with it, is not new to Neeraj having broken into the scene five years back, right before the Rio Olympics, where he created a new Under-20 world record at the junior World Championship. While it was too late for him to use his throw to try to qualify for the Rio Olympics, Neeraj ensured he finished on top of the podium at most big events he represented the country, like in 2018, when he bagged golds at the Commonwealth and the Asian Games.
An individual Olympic gold though is that rare a feat in India that the fame and adulation Neeraj finds himself in the midst of, is unknown to almost all but one. With daily felicitation ceremonies, the life that the javelin-thrower has been caught up in, will also become a norm for him. A gold that just literally changed his life. A life that he had lived much of alone, in a room at the NIS campus in Patiala, for the last five years, training daily to get here.
But, has the realisation struck yet? That his simple life of the last many years will not be waiting for him to return, from this international outing of his?
Smilingly, he replies, "Yes, I do tell people in my team that it does seem like my life isn’t the same anymore. Wherever I go, people recognise me because everyone watched the Olympic final. I used to be able to go anywhere earlier but I will have to slowly learn how to handle this fame. I trained for the Olympics but didn’t train on how to handle this new life. I will have to learn how to live this new life."
"As much as possible, I will try to live the same way I used to, in my one room at NIS Patiala. I know it may not be the same but I will try my best to keep it the same," he adds.
"It's something you've thought about? Not wanting to change and remain the same way you used to be?" I asked, after we both share a laugh about how his return to Patiala is unlikely to be to the same life. A life of quiet, spent with just his coach and physio.
"That is my wish, that I don't change. There will be people who will think I have changed. There will be more people who will be associated with me and it may not happen that I will have the same time to spend with everyone, as I used to. Earlier I used to be able to spend time with my friends but I haven't been able to speak to them since I returned from Tokyo. People will feel I've changed but I think what will matter to me is what people who are closest to me feel," he replied.
While the gold medal, and all that comes with it, is still something Neeraj may be coming to grips with, his contemporaries from across the world have moved back into competition mode, ahead of the Diamond League event later this year.
Among them is German star Johannes Vetter, who was the big favourite for the gold medal in Tokyo having thrown over 90 meters seven times this year already. His 97.76m throw last September as the closest anyone has gotten to the world record in over 20 years and, it is also almost an entire 10 meters more than Neeraj's personal best of 88.07m.
In Tokyo though, he got eliminated after the first three throws in the final while Neeraj's 87.58, in the second throw, was enough to bag him a gold. A few days after the Tokyo event, a few of the world's top javelin stars, including Vetter, shared a post on social media eluding that the wet track at the Olympic Stadium had resulted in players slipping and also not being able to catch a firm grip of the ground during their throws.
Did Neeraj experience something similar?
"I didn't face any such problems. I didn't slip but I did see that some were slipping on the track. Everyone's technique is different so it may be that the slipper track came in the way of their technique. Vetter has a strong block. When he throws, his entire body weight falls on his left leg and the leg is very straight. So much of his body weight falls on his left leg that he requires a lot of force. Maybe when he was landing on his blocking leg, he was facing some problem. I did see that other athletes too were slipping but I also threw on the same ground and I didn't slip. So it is possible that for some with a different technique, the slipper track was detrimental. It is also possible that some had used short nails on their spikes, I used longer ones, so that could also be it," Neeraj explained.