Neeraj Chopra at the 2018 Asian Games (© Getty Images)
It is a good wager that a mere mention of Neeraj Chopra’s name will conjure images of a long-haired lad throwing the javelin over a long distance.
But for close to three months, he has not laid his hands on the javelin that he is so synonymous with. “Yes, it is my identity and I am incomplete without it, but I know I have to be patient,” he says, unhesitatingly.
India’s best-known athlete, a Commonwealth Games and Asian Games gold medallist in 2018, could well be echoing every sportsperson’s thoughts as the nation emerges from a stringent lockdown of over two months from March 25. “I have resumed some outdoor training but will wait for some more time before I pick up the javelin again,” he says from his base in Patiala.
For nearly a month now, India’s elite athletes have been eased into some training over a couple of hours each day by the trackside at the Netaji Subash National Institute of Sports in Patiala and in the Sports Authority of India’s Centre of Excellence in Bangalore. The coaching staff is taking extreme care not to up the workload of the athletes while ensuring they practice social distancing, even staggering the training schedules of athletes. Everyone is learning new habits, indeed.
“Before the sudden imposition of lockdown, our athletes had been given heavy workloads as they were preparing for a series of domestic meets,” says India’s Deputy Chief Coach Radhakrishnan Nair. “It helped that they were doing some fitness work, including core strength training and flexibility, in their hostel rooms. We did not want any of them injured when they returned.”
On its part, even before lockdown was lifted, the Athletics Federation of India put together a comprehensive Standard Operating Procedure for athletes and coaches and shared it with the athletes. Athletics Federation of India (AFI) President Adille J Sumariwalla, a World Athletics Council Member, has been constantly in touch with the athletes and coaches, offering them words of counsel and comfort.
Chopra, who won the 2016 World U20 javelin gold medal with a world U20 record to boot, used the duration of lockdown to do a few things that he had not done in a while. He caught up with some friends and family - digitally, of course. “I watched movies, listened to songs and played some games online,” he says, his voice bubbling over the mobile network.
“I decided I would stay positive, more so since I was not alone in this situation. Yes, the lockdown experience was different,” he says, having spent all of 2019 in rehab after an elbow surgery. “It got better for me when the International Olympic Committee announced that Tokyo2020 would be rescheduled by a year,” he says.
The 22-year-old came up with a throw of 87.86m in Potchefstroom, South Africa, in January to tick an important box – securing Olympic qualification. “I know that, together with my coach, I can now direct my efforts to prepare for Tokyo 2020. The postponement of the Olympics will give me the chance to compete in some events and be in competitive shape ahead of Tokyo,” he says.
Guided from Germany by coach and biomechanics expert Dr. Klaus Bartonieetz, he is now focusing on ensuring general fitness before picking up the spear. “It would not be the best thing to do to start throwing, no matter how much I miss the javelin. It is best to be patient and not run the risk of injury after two months of no sports-specific training.”
Chopra is quite candid in drawing parallels between rehab from injury and lockdown. “The uncertainty is similar,” he says. “However, there was a stage during rehab when I had doubts if I could return to throwing. Now, the situation is not just about me and I am quite sure that everyone concerned will figure out ways in which to resume sport safely.”
Yahiya: ‘It feels good to be on a track’
Mohammed Anas Yahiya, India’s best 400m runner, is another who mirrors the relief that the national campers feel good on resumption of training. “It feels good. Yes, to be on back on track feels good. Training indoors is totally different. It’s great we are able to ease into our training routines now,” he says, admitting that it was tough initially to remain indoors.
Indeed, the lockdown and the consequent inability to train outdoors for more than two months has been a different experience to anything that all sportspersons have faced before. “Some meditation and yoga helped the mind stay positive during the tough phase,” he says.
He expresses confidence that national campers could train in the pristine location in Patiala without fear of being infected.
“As all athletes were locked down over the last two months and because no one is allowed to enter the campus from outside, I believe it would be safe and I don’t think we need to fear being infected,” he says.
Anas says it is natural that like all other athletes, he would shift his attention to preparing for events like Olympic Games and Asian Athletics Championships in 2021 and the World Athletics Championships in 2022. “I would rather focus on what can be controlled than lament about the postponement of the Olympic Games by a year,” says the 25-year-old.
Rani: ‘You can either sink in depression or emerge stronger for the experience’
Annu Rani, the top-ranked Indian woman athlete in the National camp in Patiala, says that emerging from indoor confines to sport after two months in lockdown is a whole new experience, but believes that the enthusiasm and energy are on the higher side now than when she first took up throwing the spear competitively.
“We had to contend with boredom during lockdown as we are used to training continuously. And I am now happy be to be training outdoors. I have not yet started throwing as I'm doing some basic work and will resume the javelin only in a while,” says the World No. 12 from her training base. “I saw the inactivity during lockdown as a temporary phase and kept doing my fitness.”
Rani admits that some negative thoughts crossed her mind during lockdown. “However, I kept the mind occupied on analysing my technique and identifying areas of improvement,” says Rani, who secured an eighth-place finish at the World Championships in Doha last year when she came up with a national record of 62.43m in qualifying.
The 27-year-old says lockdown helped her identify some good things that she adopted after a lacklustre effort in the Asian Games in Jakarta where she was unable to breach 54m for the first time in three years. “The mind was stressed over a securing medal,” she says. “I learnt a lot from the Asian Games failure. You can either sink in depression or emerge stronger for the experience.”
“Of course, 64m is on my mind as it is the qualifying standard for the Olympic Games. But my coaches and I believe that I can develop into a 70m thrower. But that will have to come later. The challenge will be to avoid injury when coming back.”
With India currently fourth on the list of nations with the most COVID-19 cases, there will be uncertainty, though the Minister for Youth Affairs and Sports Kiren Rijiju wants some competitions to resume by the end of August. On its part, AFI has scheduled the resumption of domestic meets for September.
The athletes and the coaching staff have learnt, like their counterparts everywhere, to take things one day at a time and hope that the situation would not be as alarming in a few weeks.
G Rajaraman for World Athletics