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Saturday, September 25, 2021

What makes Neeraj Chopra a true champion?

Jeev Milkha Singh writes: One of the most important lessons of sports is having respect for everyone, including rival athletes.

Updated: September 2, 2021 7:15:41 am
While Neeraj became the Olympic champion, Pakistani javelin thrower Arshad Nadeem finished fifth. (File)

Sportspersons respect each other, regardless of gender and nationality. We respect each other for our achievements, no matter how big or small. That’s one of the most important things that sports teaches you. You respect a person for what he or she is and for what he or she has achieved or done. That’s what Neeraj Chopra has done by speaking up for what is right and standing up for Arshad Nadeem after people on social media went after the Pakistani javelin thrower for picking up Chopra’s javelin in the final at the Tokyo Olympics.

While Neeraj became the Olympic champion, Arshad finished fifth. He kept pushing Neeraj to do his best. Athletes should respect their competitors because they have all proved themselves good enough to be there. Any of the 12 athletes in the final could have won on that day and I give full marks to Neeraj for appreciating each of his competitors, including Arshad. That’s the way it should be. Who knows, tomorrow I may miss a putt, while my competitor sinks his and wins the tournament. I can’t belittle his efforts or speak against him just because he is of a different nationality.

During my time in the US, while on a golf scholarship, I met players and people from many different cultures. The experience taught me to conduct myself well, to appreciate each competitor, to thank everybody on the golf course as well as in life. That was the best education. At that time, I looked up to Fred Couples, who went on to win the 1992 US Masters. I did not realise this at that time, but I liked how he conducted himself on the golf course, taking the time to talk to the galleries. It made me aspire to be like him some day. Over time, he has become a good friend and we played in Dubai some years ago. I told him that to tee off along with him is a privilege and it is one of the things that has made me the most nervous in my whole career. When I see Neeraj or Arshad or other athletes admiring each other’s efforts, I can only think of how good the sporting world is.

During my amateur days, I made many trips to Pakistan and made friends with golfers like Taimur Hassan Amin, a 16-time Pakistan national champion. Over the years, we have played together in Dubai and we often meet and share our memories of our amateur days. It was because of golf that we became friends and we are competitors only on the golf course.

Like javelin throwers, golfers too use their personal equipment in tournaments, with the difference being that others are not allowed to use the equipment. But having played on the PGA Tour, European Tour, Asian Tour and Japan Tour, apart from major championships, I have tried or got to know about the clubs used by different players. I remember taking advice from golfer Daniel Chopra and even asking Fred Couples about his clubs. I have also asked younger players, like Shubhankar Sharma, about their choice of clubs. But each one of us plays on his own and it’s our effort which rewards us.

Having travelled and played around the world, I have seen that every country cheers and looks out for its own sporting heroes in a competition. But it depends on you to find a place for yourself. Being a good human being, performing well and conducting yourself well — these things win you the respect of different countries and different cultures.

That’s what my father Milkha Singh got from Pakistan, a country he had to flee during Partition, after seeing many deaths and much tragedy. But then, as he would say, “Halat mande hunde ne, bande nahi (The conditions are bad, not the individuals)”. The kind of love my father got from Pakistan cannot be described in words. He will be known as the Flying Sikh for as long as the world remembers him. The name was given to him by Pakistan. After my father’s death, I had a conversation with Mohammad Ejaz, son of Abdul Khaliq, one of my father’s biggest competitors on the world stage. Ejaz made sure to thank me because my father had asked about his father’s well-being when the latter was a prisoner of war in Meerut after the 1971 war. I told him that someday, if I were to play in Pakistan and get taken as a prisoner of war, somebody there would give me respect as a sportsperson. That’s the power of sports.

For me, Neeraj is a true champion. He did not think about his parents or coaches; he dedicated his gold medal to my father moments after he became the Olympic champion and spoke about my father’s dream. His gesture and the way in which he has supported Arshad make him a true champion.

I don’t know if my son Harjai Milkha Singh will make a career in sports. But I am sure his time in sports has taught him to be fair and to respect his competitors — and to applaud their effort.

This column first appeared in the print edition on August 31, 2021 under the title ‘My competitor, my comrade’. The writer is a 14-time international winner in golf

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