For those worried about the decline of free speech in India or a growing intolerance, Neeraj Chopra should be a wellspring of hope. The way in which he has shut down the attacks on Pakistani javelinist Arshad Nadeem is just the latest among impressive public interventions since the 23-year-old shot into national spotlight after winning India its first track & field Olympic gold.
By all accounts the feudal power asymmetry between the country’s athletes and sports administrators still persists. The way in which wrestlers Vinesh Phogat and Sonam Malik are being put on the mat for “gross indiscipline” and “misconducts” is just one example. When Neeraj tweeted that, “Vinesh Phogat is one of India’s most accomplished sportspersons who has made the country proud many times. We are all proud of you and will continue to support you through the next phase of your life,” it must have meaningfully braced her for a difficult fight.
The Arshad controversy followed from Neeraj’s interview with TOI, where he shared that at the start of the Olympic final he took the javelin from Arshad saying, “Bhai give this javelin to me, it is my javelin! I have to throw with it.” When this resulted in hate being unleashed on Arshad, Neeraj put out a video with an extremely coherent and sharp message.
He schools us on the rules of the game, where personal javelins are kept in a common pool that all throwers can use. It is a powerful reminder of what developing a sporting culture means. Inundating the medallists with garlanding functions does not cut it. As Neeraj shared in the above interview, for him this has meant falling ill, losing sleep and fitness, and having to pull out from the Diamond League, the elite track and field competition underway in Lausanne where all other Olympic champions are participating.
“Sports teaches us to be together and united,” he reminds us. The Olympic motto indeed is Citius, Altius, Fortius – Communiter. Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together. In an era of populism he does not flinch from an unpopulist scolding: “I’m extremely disappointed to see some of the reactions from the public.” And he emphatically refuses to consent to his words being used to further “vested interests and propaganda”. For those who worry about the future of our country, Neeraj Chopra is a reminder that our bravura youth are golden.
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