Doha, Qatar – From growing up on a farm in northern India, to picking up a javelin aged 13, and winning Olympic and world titles by the age of 25: the phrase “meteoric rise” has never felt so apt when it comes to describing the Indian track and field star Neeraj Chopra.
In 2023, Chopra was crowned world champion for the first time while he also successfully defended his Asian Games title.
Not a bad 12 months for someone who recently admitted to Al Jazeera that he spent much of the year struggling with a muscle strain.
“ was a rollercoaster for me because of the injury … but the big highlight was the World Championship, I liked my throw in the Asian Games also, but I feel my throwing was good in training but because of injury I didn’t do my best this year, so hopefully next year I’ll throw my best,” he told Al Jazeera in an exclusive interview.
Chopra’s journey to the top hasn’t been easy. Growing up in the village of Chandra in the northern Indian state of Haryana, the young Neeraj was regularly bullied over his weight. By age 11 he was already 80kg, at which point his father suggested he join a local gym.
It was there where he first took up athletics, with the javelin quickly becoming his favourite discipline.
“I really liked the javelin, especially how it flew, but I also watched so many videos of Jan Zelezny, the world record holder from the Czech Republic, so I watched so many videos of him and I really liked his technique and his attitude in competition,” he said.
“He was really focused always and he threw very consistently in every competition and he was a legend.”
Zelezny’s world record of 98.48 metres was set back in 1996 and while Chopra admits he’s still a little way off challenging that mark, his desire to emulate his idol has pushed him to new levels in training.
His social media followers are regularly treated to clips of his punishing gym routines, but says he enjoys training almost as much as competing.
“When I start training I just want to train, if I break my rhythm, like if I go somewhere and miss training I don’t feel good,” he said. “So if I train for a competition I want to train for a 100 percent focus and I want to focus on everything, like good recovery and also good diet, this is very important to me.”
Chopra’s focus paid off in 2021 when he won India’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in athletics in Tokyo, and overnight he became a sporting superstar, his popularity rivalling those of Indian cricketers and Bollywood actors.
Since that Olympic success, Chopra’s commercial value has gone from strength to strength.
Almost immediately he signed deals with 10 major brands including Tata AIA Life Insurance, Gillette India and Under Armour.
Market analysts Kroll recently estimated Chopra’s brand value at $26.5m, a figure expected to rise in the leadup to the 2024 Paris Olympics.
His portfolio is certainly varied, from advertising insurance with David Beckham to helping Marvel studios promote the Black Panther sequel Wakanda Forever in India.
Chopra’s social media following also saw an exponential increase soaring by more than 200 percent within a week of his winning gold in Tokyo.
His 7.5 million followers on Instagram give the International Olympic Committee hope that he, as well as the introduction of cricket at Los Angeles 2028, can help boost the Olympic movement in South Asia.
Chopra told Al Jazeera he thinks it’s vital India becomes a multi-sport country.
“I think it’s good that people follow other sports also, that people follow Olympic sports. I know cricket is also part of the Olympic programme, but I think it’s really good that people follow other sports also.”
Despite the lack of privacy that comes with Chopra’s level of fame, he says maintaining personal connections with fans is still paramount.
The athlete regularly visits schools in India, often preaching the gospel of track and field to children in a country where cricket remains the national obsession.
Chopra hopes that his success will inspire a new generation of Indian javelin throwers.
“I really feel happy that some other javelin throwers who are now retired, they’re starting academies [in India] and they’re working with young athletes who want to get into javelin. So this is really good – it’s not only me but other javelin throwers who are also helping grow the sport of javelin in India.
I think there is a lot of natural talent here and I feel that in the future we can win more javelin medals at the global level ”
For now, Chopra says he’s concentrating on winning a second Olympic gold at Paris 2024.
The challenge for this young superstar will be to keep his focus while at the same time dealing with the pressures of being one of India’s most in-demand sportsmen, but it’s a situation he says he welcomes.
“Now I’m in India so I really like to meet people, I meet so many people and now also if I’m in India I go to so many places, I meet so many people but when I start training I want to train, that is my main focus”
“My biggest goal is to improve my throw. I want to throw more. I want to throw far, yes of course I won gold in Tokyo but I want to win medals again and again.”