Not just a European holiday anymore

Neeraj Chopra vividly recalls one of his early European trips in 2014; the chilling winter and the anxiety that gripped him at the thought of competing against foreign athletes. It proved to be a momentary thought though.

“Khone ke liye kuch nahi tha (there was nothing to lose). Nobody had any expectations, so I decided to enjoy myself and compete with a free mind,” says Chopra.

This fearless and positive mindset ensured that the then 19-year-old Chopra broke the (86.48m) under-20 world record in Bydogszcz, Poland in 2016. The feat announced his arrival in the big league and gave confidence to the athletes back home.

“You feel that the others are very good strong athletes and how we can compete with them. But we work equally hard, leave our home at a small age and go through so much of sacrifice and pain. So there is nothing to lose,” said Chopra, on the sidelines of his new venture #JavRun challenge on YouTube Shorts, where fans are asked to replicate his run-up.

Chopra’s gold at the Tokyo Olympics has further fuelled the ambition of Indian athletes who are no longer satisfied with the tag of also-rans. A spate of impressive performances in recent international meets — from Avinash Sable, Murali Sreeshankar and Jyothi Yarraji — show they are keen to make a mark on the international stage.

The increase in foreign exposure tours and competitions have helped Indian athletes break the mould while technical experts have added to their know-how.

“Competing in an event in India and abroad is very different,” says Sreeshankar. The main thing is to adjust to the climate and food. Food is the main part. Then you have to get used to the atmosphere, announcements will be in different languages, tracks will be different.”

Sreeshankar added: “The federation (AFI) is now sending a lot of athletes abroad for training and competition and that has helped in getting accustomed. It is important to get familiar with the weather and surroundings.”

Sreeshankar, for example, has stuck to continental diet even at home in India. “I struggled during my initial days and then I changed my diet, very specific. Now, I can survive on boiled food, non-veg etc. So, when I go there I face no issues.”

Indian athletes are also exploring possibilities of better training opportunities. Like Sreeshankar did after meeting Tokyo Olympics gold medallists Miltiadis Tentoglou of Greece at the World Indoor Championships in Belgrade in March. He finished 7th in a world class field with a jump of 7.92, setting a new national indoor record. Last month Sreeshankar trained at the Olympic Stadium in Greece, where Tentoglou trains.

“I was in touch with him and his coach and because of them we got permission to use the facility there. It was a great experience, and competing against Tentoglou, Thobias Montler, has given me confidence,” says Sreeshankar.

The 23-year-old also won gold at the International Jumping Meet in Kallithea, Greece with a jump of 8.31m on May 27. His national record stands at 8.36m at the Federation Cup in April.

It has also helped that private organisations like JSW and Reliance Foundation are doing their bit in backing talented juniors with their programmes. Hurdler Jyothi Yarraji has been on a national record-smashing spree. Her itinerary was carefully planned by Reliance Odisha Athletics High Performance coach James Hillier, a former England hurdler.

Jyothi was travelling abroad for the first time and she had not even heard an electronic starting gun before. She was scared to think of competing in foreign conditions. Prior to her competition, Hillier took her to a three-week acclimatising camp in Tenerife Islands in Spain, a known destination for world renowned athletes.

“That was the foundation. She trained with other foreign athletes and it made her comfortable while dealing with the pressure,” says Hillier.

Chopra says competing abroad helps you evolve as an athlete and find your own methods to prepare.

“In a new environment, you are constantly thinking. You see the training of other athletes, how they prepare before a competition, their warm up routines could be so different. You have to accept the challenge and move ahead. At the end of the day, it is an athlete who has to use his mind to adapt to different challenges on the field of play. These competitions help you develop your own mind.

“Our athletes are using the opportunity to the best of their ability. When you do well in quality international meets, you have confidence to win in major international competitions,” said Chopra.